“So may we start?” sing Sparks and the cast at the beginning of Annette, a film that asks its audience’s permission before proceeding with surely one of the most unique cinematic experiences they’ll have this year. It is the English language debut from bizarro French auteur Leos Carax (Holy Motors) that Wikipedia describes as a ‘musical romantic drama film’ but that IMDb classifies as a documentary. Whatever Annette is (‘comedic opera’ or ‘cross medium Sparks concept album’ are my picks) doesn’t really matter. What it’s not is everything else in cinemas or on streaming platforms at the moment. And I think that’s a marvelous achievement.
Henry McHenry (Adam Driver in a knockout performance) is a stand-up comedian whose anti-comedy is initially very popular with audiences all over the country (the US). He calls himself ‘The Ape of God’ and wears a green boxer’s robe for each show after shoveling bananas down his gullet, parading around the stage and coughing through smoke machine entrances, defying expectations of what comedy should be. Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) is a critically-lauded opera singer whose career is only going upwards. Her performances ensnare audiences and her characters always meet aesthetically beautiful and tragic fates. The two begin a very public courting followed shortly by an engagement and wedding, and thereafter by the birth of their first child Annette (appearing, at least to us, as a wooden marionette puppet with her father’s ears and her mother’s red hair.) Annette will later reveal something else inherited from her mother – a hauntingly beautiful singing voice. As Ann’s star continues to rise, Henry’s starts to dim, and the pressures of raising a child (even a seemingly manoeuvrable one) in the public eye lead to disastrous results for the couple.
Whether you read Annette as a melodramatic depiction of the downward spiral of every relationship after having kids or the catastrophic results of the male ego left unchecked, there is something inherently tragic about the whole affair that leads to the conclusion that Annette is very much an opera. And if you’re not used to that much overtness and sing-songiness with no reprieve then it may take you some time to get used to. But the film is also very funny and modern in its storytelling.
In one of the more hilarious sex scenes I’ve watched, Henry proves quite the ‘cunning linguist’ as he comes up for air and a song from between his wife’s legs. I had read that this was the first film that shows the elusive art of dual oral performance and in execution it’s exactly as I imagined it would be. Other, non-comedic sex scenes are beautifully scored and shot (like a sequence I remember from one of the more arty episodes of Hannibal) and despite its surreal and over-the-top depiction of love and lust in their early stages, there was a good smack of realism to the excitement of the relationship in the honeymoon stage and its inevitable fizzling out afterwards.
Adam Driver really is phenomenal in this – the two minute glimpse of musicality we got in his rendition of ‘Being Alive’ in Marriage Story is finally expanded upon in a full length feature and I couldn’t be more grateful. As a man less talented than both his wife and infant daughter, his jealousy culminates in a simmering rage that makes his character both loathsome and relatable as he tries to figure out how he can profit from Annette’s gift. Marion Cotillard is exquisite as both Henry’s muse and his curse – she can convey so much love and disdain with just her eyes that she serves as the perfect foil to the increasingly disgraceful man he chooses to become. As the relationship changes their glances turn from love to fear (from Ann) and hateful jealousy (from Henry). The only other Henry and Ann(e) relationship I’m familiar with was equally passionate in its beginning and tempestuous by its end, and also resulted in a prodigal child who would go on to make a more positive mark on the world than her father.
Special mention should also go to Simon Helberg who, despite playing a side character with limited screen time, does scene-stealing work that injects a lot of heart into the film. He plays a character known only as The Accompanist, playing piano for Ann’s performances and admiring her very obviously from afar (and previously, according to him, from not so far.) An excellent scene somewhere in the middle of the film sees him having risen to his desired vocation as a conductor. The camera circles him as he both works and, in a fourth wall demolition, delivers a spoken word narration of the events that are currently occurring in the story accompanied very musically by the diegetic orchestral performance in front of us. The tone is handled perfectly (it’s one of the lighter moments of the film) and Helberg’s experience with comedy shines through as he excuses himself from talking to us to finish his job.
The other stars of the film are the songs. And that makes perfect sense, as Annette in its conception was indeed a Sparks album. The Maels (Ron and Russell, currently experiencing a whole new surge of popularity thanks to Edgar Wright’s doco The Sparks Brothers) picked the perfect time to show their in-progress work to one of their biggest fans – director Carax. The rest is history, and we’re gifted a frenetic collection of tunes that ride the waves of the story. There is the meta and theatrical intro followed by a scary Coraline-esque choir piece. Henry and Ann sing “We Love Each Other So Much” with melancholy (like they wish they believed it) and Simon Helberg performs the manic “I’m An Accompanist” with crazy commitment. The mysterious “Aria” is reprised by baby Annette throughout, while synthed-up accompaniments to childbirth and powerful string compositions complement the more experimental scenes. There is cohesion in these vastly different sounds and it’s such an accomplishment from one of the longest working musical groups of the last two centuries.
In an end credits scene one Mael brother says “if you liked what you saw, tell a friend. And if you’ve got no friends…tell a stranger.” So I say to any strangers that might have stumbled across this review: I very much liked what I saw. This will not be everyone’s cup of tea (it may appear to some as a chalice of bubbling, foreign goo) but if you’re looking for something original and different or you partake of something green and want to recreate your experience watching Fantasia under the influence then I would heartily recommend Annette. It is not an event you will forget any time soon.
I give Annette 8/10. It starts August 26th and if you want to see it with a friend (or a stranger) there is a ‘Movies With Mark’ session at Luna Leederville on Sunday the 29th (don’t sit in front of me if you’re tall or have big hair.)