VOD film review: Annette
Mark Harrison | On 26, Nov 2021
Director: Leos Carax
Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Ron Mael, Russell Mael
It’s a tale as old as time. Sparks makes catchy yet underrated pop music for more than 50 years. Leos Carax makes stunning yet uncategorisable art films for more than 40 years. Sparks meets Leos Carax and they make Annette, an uncategorisable rock opera that lands somewhere between fantasy and morality play.
The film opens with a request that the audience hold their breath for the duration before diving into “So May We Start”, an introductory number (featuring Carax, Sparks brothers Ron and Russell Mael and the cast) that effectively frogmarches you through the proscenium and into the story.
Fans of Carax’s previous film, 2012’s existential slice-of-life odyssey Holy Motors, will recognise the style, but Annette has a more conventional and linear narrative. It follows the unlikely pairing of edgelord stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), who claims that his “Ape of God” act is the only way he knows to tell the truth without getting killed, and internationally renowned singer Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), who dies every night on stage at the end of her acclaimed show.
Warbling the almost ironic refrain “We love each other so much” while Ann’s accompanist (Simon Helberg) jealously watches on, the couple run into problems after conceiving their daughter, Annette. At once as beautiful as Ann and as artificial as Henry, the child is played by a puppet and she has a unique gift that’s both alarming and highly lucrative in her father’s view.
The film is nothing revolutionary, but it’s a film of firsts for its writers and directors. Carax makes his English-language debut, while the Maels finally get a musical made after past attempts with directors Jacques Tati and Tim Burton. That it comes in the same year as Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers is just gravy. In any case, their tunes here lend to Annette’s general unnerving capacity to get inside your head.
While some theatrical musical conventions are honoured in the staging of the film, the songs aren’t catchy standards so much as concept-album pieces, eerily repeating throughout the first half and then haunting the action through to the finale.
With an emphasis on the operatic aspect, it’s post-modern and ironic and self-indulgent in a way that could rankle – an over-balance in either direction would make this a Lemony Snicket-style trifle about a dastardly performer turning to crime and exploiting children for profit. Driver’s character is both loathsome and self-loathing and Cotillard is the saintly foil to what the in-film showbiz news bulletins call their “Beauty and the Bastard” chemistry.
There’s also a career-best supporting turn by Helberg, whose presence in the second half of the film in particular emphasises the human side of things. For all the artifice and in-your-face irony, whether it’s the puppet title character or the sporadic cameos by the Mael brothers, Annette means what it says. It’s got funny bits, but the overriding tone is earnest and sincere.
Annette has different goals and its funny way of getting to them makes unforgettable viewing. It’s at once the stuff that cult classics are made of and a more mainstream film than you expect from this director. Like Henry and Ann, Sparks and Carax are a match made… well, somewhere, and love it or hate it, their collaboration yields memorable results.