Movie Review: ‘Annette’

Director: Leos Carax

Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell

Plot: Henry McHenry, an abrasive and controversial stand-up comedian, falls in love with Ann Defrasnoux, a delicate and beloved opera singer. Somehow their baby child, Annette, reveals herself to be a miraculous singer.

Review: That may sound like an odd and vague synopsis, but it’s difficult to capture the style and intent with this one. Even a straight forward recap of the story doesn’t do it justice. This is a high drama, psychological thriller musical devised by brothers Ron and Russell Mael of the musical act Sparks. Maybe it’s best if we start with explaining Sparks.

We only learnt of Sparks through the Edgar Wright documentary released earlier this year and titled The Sparks Brothers. They’re a pop act that have been recording and performing music for roughly 50 years, and whilst members of the group have come and gone with the years, but front men Ron and Russell Mael have remained the creative force for decades. I’m glad I discovered Sparks through Wright’s documentary where I can see the overall picture, get a sense of their humour and how they use art as both personal expression and comment on trends in the art form itself. The Mael’s have long been fascinated with French cinema and have now created their own ambitious musical film project with French director Leos Carax steering the ship.

Drama is the order of the day, with more theatrical conventions than cinema used to tell the tale of Henry McHenry (Driver). McHenry is a bitter comedian with a dark and crooked worldview, whose perspective is presented through the surreal storytelling that mixes fourth wall breaking elements, puppetry and musical numbers. To the surprise of gossip columnists and the public, McHenry launches into a passionate and public love affair with world famous soprano Ann (Cotillard). Their whirlwind relationship culminates with marriage and the birth of their daughter Annette. In spite of the joyous occasion, McHenry’s star is on the decline. Fuelled by drink and the recurring image of his wife dying as part of her performance, McHenry begins behaving erratically and tragedy ultimately strikes.

Now alone with Baby Annette, McHenry is shocked to learn that she has a remarkable ability to sing. With no other income left, he takes Annette on a global tour where she becomes a sensation and inspires billions of fans. McHenry grows increasingly distant from his daughter, only noticed by their musical accompanist (Helberg) who harboured a secret love for Ann.

For much of the film this is a solo performance from Adam Driver, who can certainly carry a film on his own merits. Carrying a movie with long monologue sequences interspersed with musical numbers is another ask altogether, and Driver does a fantastic job with this deeply unpleasant character. The fact that he remains compelling in spite of the horrible behaviour we see demonstrates why Driver captured people’s attention as Kylo Ren. It’s clear that he doesn’t have the background in singing that would be expected in a film such as this, but the Mael brothers are never ones to go with the conventional choice. Although his vocal performance has a few cracks, his dramatic range shines through. Cotillard is as phenomenal as always. At first it feels like Ann is an underwritten character, seemingly having no point of view of her own. What becomes clear, however, is that we don’t really know Ann because we only see her from McHenry’s perspective, and he only sees her as an extension of his own being. This motif is doubled down on when Baby Ann enters the story, as she’s literally played by a wooden marionette. Annette the marionette (heh) truly is a puppet for McHenry to hold onto the spotlight and fill his own coffers.

If there’s one thing consistent with the output of Sparks over five decades, it’s the impression that they’re not paying much attention to what is going to bring in the big crowds. From the very beginning we get their dry humour when an announcer suggests that we only laugh, cry, sing and fart in our heads so as to not interrupt the performance, followed by the cast being given their costume and wigs while performing the opening number. They have defied expectation with the musical form. Having heard the romantic ballad ‘We Love Each Other So Much’ from the soundtrack ahead of a time, I never suspected that the song would be accompanied by explicit and sweaty scenes of oral sex. We have musical police interrogations, birth scenes and directions to the exits of the theatre. Carax and the Mael brothers have woven theatre and cinema together in a way that is nicely complimented by the surreal tone. The odd reality of the world created here makes the final scene hit all the harder when it rolls around.

This is not going to be a movie received well by the mainstream audience, as…well…it’s mental. It’s got a strangely acerbic humour and the characters will sing about what had happened rather than let us see events play out ourselves. Like Sparks, there’s going to be a crowd who finds that this resonates on their wavelength. It certainly struck a chord with us. Will you like it? If you’re not sure, maybe watch The Sparks Brothers first. It’s what got me on board with these delightful maniacs. Time Magazine called Annette the ‘wrong kind of weird’…guess they aren’t on the wavelength.

Rating: NINE out of TEN