EIFF reviews: Annette | The Beta Test | Ninja Baby | Prince of Muck

Right from the start of the Sparks-penned rock opera Annette (***), Leos Carax makes it clear he’s not messing about. The mad maestro of French cinema’s first film since his career-rejuvenating Holy Motors nine years ago features the director himself instructing us to “hold our breath until the very end of the show”.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette.

He then launches proceedings with a wonderfully witty opening number that deconstructs the entire movie-making process while Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, lead stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard out of a recording studio and onto the streets of LA where they gradually assume the guise of their characters. As a statement of intent, it’s hard not to admire Carax’s chutzpah, though quite how seriously we’re supposed to take it all is another matter.

A sung-through musical in which even a character performing oral sex can’t interrupt an aria, Annette — which makes its UK debut at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this weekend — may revel in its own bizarreness, but everything is so arch the effect can be as distancing as it is beguiling. Driver plays Henry McHenry, a confrontational comedian in the Lenny Bruce/Sam Kinison/Bill Hicks mould who’s using the shield of comedy to say the unthinkable in a culture where angry white guys like him are now on borrowed time. When he falls for an opera singer called Ann (Cotillard), the tabloids eagerly await the relationship’s implosion, something hastened by Henry’s delicate male ego as he struggles to cope with Ann’s success while contending with a #MeToo-style reckoning.

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This latter plot turn gives Annette a zeitgeist-y hook, but neither Carax nor the Mael brothers seem all that interested in its wider implications given they write Cotillard out of the movie midway through, her character barely anymore developed than she was at the start. She makes way for the titular Annette, Henry and Ann’s baby daughter, a miraculous child with the ears of a chimp and the voice of an angel whose freakish talent — a signing baby! — Henry wastes no time exploiting. In the film’s most audacious and inspired creative move, Carax casts a creepy marionette in the role of Annette to better symbolise the way Henry will soon be the puppet-master of her life, controlling her in a way he never could his wife as he tours her round he word with the help of Ann’s besotted former accompanist (Simon Hellberg in too small a role).

As wilfully wacky as all this sounds, it’s all very much in the spirit of the the granddaddy of all rock operas, Tommy, Ken Russell’s movie version of The Who’s 1969 opus about a “deaf, dumb and blind” pinball wizard whose Christ-like ascendency is destroyed by parental exploitation. Annette’s rise may update things for an age in which the casual outrage and ephemeral stardom of the internet are two sides of the same coin, but the basic story is a familiar one of a powerful man being brought to his knees by a pure-of-heart innocent. For all Driver’s hypnotic ability to blend Brando-like machismo with child-like vulnerability in song, Henry’s crocodile tears as he surveys all that he’s ruined isn’t necessarily worth holding your breath for.

Toxic masculinity is also at the heart of The Beta Test (***), a wicked Hollywood satire wrapped up in a confusing conspiracy thriller. Co-written and co-directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, it stars the former as Jordan Hines, a Hollywood agent whose life goes into free-fall when he accepts an invitation to participate in an anonymous no-strings-attached sexual encounter with an admirer. As someone who longs for the pre-Weinstein days when a culture of fear and avarice enabled blowhards to act like masters of the universe, Jordan’s efforts to maintain a mask of cordiality in an industry going through a very public clean-up has a touch of American Psycho about it and Cummings is brilliant at showing the edges of Jordan’s mania bleeding through his bleached smile. But as the film tries to weave in its thriller aspects, it’s much less satisfying, lacking the Lynchian weirdness required to get away with all the unanswered questions that remain.

Anyone seeking the sort of low-key crowd-pleasers that festivals usually throw up can check out NinjaBaby (***) and Prince of Muck (***), both now available to watch virtually. The former is a Norwegian comedy about an aspiring comic-book artist (Kristine Kujath Thorp) whose life is upended by an unplanned pregnancy. That’s well-trodden territory for a rom-com, but co-writer/director Yngvild Sve Flikke is admirably unsentimental about pregnancy and uses her protagonist’s creative aspirations to literally animate the character’s misgivings about motherhood in a way that’s rare for movies.

Dutch filmmaker Cindy Jansen’s Prince of Muck, on the other hand, is a documentary about Lawrence MacEwan, the eccentric, cow-loving laird of the titular Scottish island whose commitment to working the land in a traditional way is at odds with his son, who has taken over the day-to-day running of the family farm. Jansen lets this conflict simmer in the background rather than amping it up for dramatic purposes, but the resulting film makes good use of Lawrence’s matter-of-fact diary entries to tease out a moving story about loss, sacrifice and the difficulty of island life.

Edinburgh International Film Festival runs until 25 August. For tickets and information visit edfilmfest.org.uk