I mentioned in my review of The Sparks Brothers (which remains the best theatrically-released documentary I’ve seen this year) that one of the few setbacks for Ron and Russ Mael in their careers was the collapse of a collaboration with director Tim Burton on a feature film. However, as noted, even that heartbreak has since been mended thanks to a deal with French filmmaker Leos Carax. With a score by the band and a script shared by all three, they came up with Annette, which debuted as the Opening Night Feature at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Carax himself, helming his first English-language film, would go on to win Best Director.
Now, as I am a newly-converted Sparks fan, there was no way I wasn’t going to see this, and now that it’s available on Amazon Prime, so can all of you. The challenge for me was if I was going to be able to set my penchant for geeking out aside and judge this film on its objective merits. It didn’t help that when I went to the theatre to see the film, it was immediately after a screening that included a Q&A session, so I couldn’t stop myself from gushing looking at Russ and Ron coming down the escalator as I was going up. They’re even cooler in person.
I think I was able to compartmentalize properly, and it is worth noting that there’s a moment or two that certainly makes less sense if you’re not into the group. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter, because Annette is definitely among the best films of the year, and at minimum, it’s the most unique and ambitious, a modern operetta of the trappings of celebrity and show business exploitation. It’s weird, wonderful, and quintessentially Sparks, but thankfully, for the most part, you don’t need to jump on the band’s wagon to enjoy this truly offbeat masterpiece.
The film opens with a scene that sets the tone both figuratively and literally, to the point that if you’re not on board by the time it’s over, you’ve got an easy out. Beginning in a recording studio, Sparks begins playing a song called “So May We Start,” after Carax himself asks that very question. The song is playful and decidedly odd, but perfectly within the band’s wheelhouse, and given that the film is directed by a Frenchman and stars French superstar Marion Cotillard, it’s very likely that the band repeating the phrase, “may we” is an intentional meta play on words, as the French, “mais oui” means “of course” (literally, “but yes”). That’s part of the beauty and fun of Sparks music, because their lyrics are oftentimes quite literal and direct while also being extremely layered and clever when you take that extra few seconds to run it back in your head.
Soon after the song begins, the duo rises from their seats, and in a bit of single-take brilliance, walks out of the studio and on to Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, with a backing choir and the film’s principle actors joining in from the sides. The editors even have fun with the credit roll, correcting one of the biggest peeves I have with star billing, in that as soon as the appropriate actor comes on screen (Cotillard, Adam Driver, and Simon Helberg), they are immediately name-fonted with the text under their face. You don’t know how many minor OCD panic attacks I’ve had when I would see a name on a poster above an actor’s head and they don’t match.
At this point, a large group is walking down Santa Monica singing along to this opening number, stopping just outside the Laemmle Royal theatre, where I had been just hours before watching Swan Song. The song then ends, and everyone just breaks character from the moment and goes about their various merry ways, with Driver taking a motorcycle to his first official plot point and Cotillard getting in a limousine next to the parking lot and Thai restaurant on Colby Avenue where I was parked earlier that day. Again, it’s HARD not to squee over these moments, because it really does feel like you’re in the movie.
Now, if you don’t know who Sparks are, or if you’re just not a fan, this entire sequence can be incredibly confusing and off-putting. I mean, to an outsider, who the hell are these two random dudes singing with Adam Driver in the middle of the street? They only show up in the film one more time in a cameo as airline pilots. If that’s your takeaway, I totally get it. But thankfully, this is really the only part of the film that almost requires preexisting knowledge, and even without it, just from a filmmaking standpoint, it’s fucking gorgeous.
It’s a prologue. It’s an apéritif before the action starts proper. The band, the cast, and Carax by extension, are telling you that this is a lark. It’s a bit of fun, a distraction, much like a stage play or an opera would do by prefacing the story with an appetizing bit of pure entertainment. Because there are some heavy themes at play once the film gets going, themes that, in the current Hollywood era, could potentially alter an audience member’s perspective about the personal lives of those involved, especially if a less capable director allowed it to spiral into something gratuitous. So it’s damn near genius for everyone to just start out by having such a seemingly candid number to remind everyone it’s all make believe, all in good fun, and meant to put a smile on your face. It’s an invitation to dive in head first and suspend your disbelief in the service of enjoying the experience. It’s not only an ambitious opening salvo, it’s refreshingly welcome.
Now, I’ve just spent five paragraphs on the opening scene of this movie, which should tell you a LOT about how great an achievement this is. There are some reviews where I’m about to wrap things up at this point, and I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet. Don’t worry, I won’t drag on forever, but it is truly remarkable the amount of thought and effort that went in to just setting the stage for this project, and it really deserves the attention. I’ve seen a lot of great individual scenes this year, but I’ll be hard-pressed to find one better than this going forward.
As to the actual story, Cotillard plays an opera singer named Ann, who’s carved out an artistic niche for herself playing tragic heroines. As Driver playfully notes in speech and song, Ann’s job is to “die and bow, bow and die.” Driver, meanwhile, is an intentionally controversial stand-up comic named Henry McHenry, who wears a robe as part of his persona, shadowboxes backstage, and always eats a banana before performing. He goes on long rants without telling any real jokes, treating the profession more like performance art, where he can let his emotional range soar. Watching him, I pictured a Bo Burnham-type with Lenny Bruce’s social commentary and Sam Kinison’s manic energy. Together, the two are an unlikely, yet buzzworthy, Hollywood couple, constantly in the paparazzi’s crosshairs with punny headlines. But despite their polar opposite public personalities, they are hopelessly devoted to each other, as expressed in the swooning ballad, “We Love Each Other So Much.”
Both of these acclaimed actors give performances that rank among the best of their careers. Driver is all over the map (see what I did there?), but there’s a weird sort of logic to it, a method approach that would feel 100% real if the opening number didn’t go out of its way to assure us it wasn’t. Cotillard is delicate on the surface yet strong in words, asserting her agency every chance she gets and refusing to succumb to the tabloid depictions of what her life might, or should, be. Honestly, the only disappointment is that Cotillard didn’t do her own singing, because I bet she could pull it off. But then, she didn’t do all that much singing herself in La Vie en Rose either, so it’s not necessarily a flaw. I just would have appreciated the sense of verisimilitude all the more if it was actually her belting out such lovely notes.
Their relationship is wild, graphic, and passionate. Along the way, we’re introduced to Ann’s accompanist (Helberg), who dreams of being a full orchestral conductor. It’s clear he’s in love with Ann as well, but given that he has no name, it’s just as clear that he has no chance. As Henry and Ann become closer, marrying and eventually conceiving a child, Henry gets his #MeToo moment, as six women come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. This puts a strain on everyone involved, and drives Henry literally to drink. Things finally seem to calm down, however, with the birth of their first child, the titular Annette. There’s just one thing off with this whole arrangement, though, at least from the audience’s perspective.
Annette is a fucking wooden puppet.
This is what I’m talking about when I say this film is about as weird and ambitious as it gets. The baby is a puppet. She’s not a puppet to the characters in the film, just to us. Within the context of the story and the characters on the screen, she’s a normal baby, the jewel of her parents’ eyes. To us watching, she’s a malleable object, able to be swung and flung and joyfully tossed without her getting hurt. Even her name is a delightful bit of wordplay, as she’s a very happy baby puppet, a “Merry Annette,” if you will.
But more importantly, she becomes the most important prop in the film, again both figuratively and literally. When tragedy strikes the family, Annette miraculously gains the ability to sing, despite only being an infant. Henry then exploits her talent to redeem his own name and keep his lifestyle afloat, eventually conscripting the Accompanist to be her music teacher as they go on the road. She is a puppet in the worst sense of the word now, because she’s being manipulated, dancing on strings for the entertainment and profit of others, little more than an accoutrement to the proceedings of Henry’s life. It’s one of the most striking visual metaphors I’ve ever seen, and it’s absolutely bonkers that no one’s really made use of the conceit until now.
This is the other side of the fantasy teased in that grand opening number. We’re shown the artificiality of the presentation by having Annette be a puppet, a plaything, a living MacGuffin that drives every moment of the plot after her birth. But she also represents an ideal, an unattainable bit of perfection that also shows the folly of someone trying to live vicariously through their own offspring. This is the sort of stuff I’ve been learning about Sparks’ music over the last few months, playing and replaying albums to try to dig beneath the surface of even the most inessential tracks, because Edgar Wright, and now Leos Carax, showed just how deep their work can be when you elect to go down the rabbit hole. I bet on multiple viewings you could write entire essays about what each song, character, and plot point meant and still only cover a small amount. But again, you don’t necessarily need to be a Sparks fan to see the multilayered opus on display here. It’s all so well-crafted and clever without being too smart for its own good, aided by an almost magical degree of photography and color effects.
This film absolutely floored me. I went in with no expectations, other than the novelty of seeing this band I just heard of (and now love) doing a movie, hopefully with some good music. Instead, I witnessed a film that cannot in any way be narrowly defined, because it actively refuses to be painted into a corner. Is it a comedy? Yes. Is it a drama? Yes. Is it a musical? Yes. Is it an opera? Yes. Is it fantasy? Yes. Is it reality? In the non-literal sense, yes, because it depicts very real modern issues in stark, abstract terms. Basically all you can say is that it’s not science fiction or horror, and even then, I’m sure a case could be made by someone smarter than me. Ron and Russell Mael clearly had a vision when they penned this story, and Leos Carax appears to have been the perfect person to execute it. Between fantastic performances, eccentrically brilliant music, and the most eye-popping central concept I’ve seen in years, this easily rises to the 2021 pantheon. It’s not often that I get to see two solid “A” films in the same week, much less the same day, but between Swan Song and Annette, I definitely did on that fateful Sunday earlier this month when I ventured out to Santa Monica.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite modern, original film musical? Could you give a convincing performance against a puppet costar? Let me know!