2021 has been good for the band Sparks. First of all, there’s Edgar Wright’s enthusiastic celebration of their decades-long career, a definitive primer on a pair of brothers rode waves of raising and diminishing popularity thanks to an ever evolving sound. Now there’s Annette, a long gestating musical that sees its debut as the opening night gala of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Directed by Leos Carax, an equally mercurial talent who’s last film Holy Motors divided audiences sharply, with some declaring it an unabashed masterpiece and others dismayed by its surrealist, meandering vision. Annette is in many ways more accessible in comparison, but that’s not necessarily to the film’s benefit, and may seem quite comical when considering just how wild and weird this film is on first glance.
Somewhere between a Von Trier-like rumination on misery and melancholia with a dash of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Marriage Story thrown in, this meta-musical takes the tunes of Sparks and entwines them with the chaotic, compelling images that Carax is known for.
Parts of the film are stellar — the opening number alone is a real treat, breaking down the fourth wall immediately and engaging in an unabashedly theatrical march. I had high hopes from this scene, hoping to find the best of the Sparks’ infectious melodicism elevated by committed, wild performances by leads Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, promising an off-kilter La La Land for the arthouse sect.
Instead, the film settles into an at-times aggravating, at other times repetitive, relationship tale. A famous opera singer (Cotillard) is in a relationship with a wild and brash comedian who goes by the stage name “Ape of God” (Driver). Riding through the streets of a neon-lit L.A. (am I the only one that things the 2nd Street Tunnel should have been retired as a location after its definitive use in THX-1138?), we can see their passion writ large on screen.
The film operates far more as opera than what the French dub “comédie musicale,” or what we often dub as a Broadway. This is despite Carax’s name-checking Sondheim in the credits, who’s thanked along with Edgar Allan Poe to give some hint to the macabre undertones exhibited. Meanwhile, other moments evoke the likes of Ken Russel’s Tommy.
The script is by Ron and Russel Mael, the brothers behind Sparks, and it provides the enthusiastic collision of ideas of their songcraft, along with some of the repetition and aimlessness that detractors may find in their musical output. While in a three minute pop song you can get away with this kind of tonal misfire, on the big screen the seams are writ large, and as such when the film veers off it feels a strange mix of discomfiting while not being weird enough. It’s a tough trick to pull off for even the most experienced of screenwriters, and while the ambition may be applauded, there still feels more missteps than not.
Then there’s the titular character, a puppeteered infant who’s gifted with the voice of their late parent. It’s here the film definitely has to draw the audience along for the suspension of disbelief, as any movie of this genre must, and unfortunately the tie between the morbid, the maudlin, and the musical is never quite accomplished.
While the narrative is by Sparks, there are tangential echoes to Carax’s path, including the death of his former partner Yekaterina Nikolaevna Golubeva who died under mysterious circumstances and left behind a daughter she had with the director. It’s clear from the case there’s no direct correlation, but it’s absolutely one of those meta-textual elements that some so-called cinephilic writer will run with.
Despite the myriad missteps, it’s the closing scenes (and a final number as the credits role) where the promise of the opener truly shines, with Driver once again providing a performance that shows what a titanic talent he truly is. While Cotillard does well, and Simon Helberg (a personal favorite from the masterpiece that is A Serious Man, though I hear he’s done television too), it’s on Driver’s shoulders that the film’s success rests. Despite Atlas-like attempts, he’s never quite able to overcome some of the tonal and tuneful misfires, yet when it works it’s almost entirely due to his tenacity and commitment.
Followers of Carax will be warmed by his return if a little disappointed it doesn’t quite recapture the magic, while fans of Sparks (many newly minted thanks to Wright) may appreciate the foray into a different outlet for their art. For those of us open to the experience but without a baked-in attitude to love this sight unseen, Annette proves to be a deeply flawed picture that still has many moments to recommend it. It’s a film I wanted to love from the first moments, one that lost me for much of its running time, and then by the end is told with enough gusto that it reminded me of what it could have been. Twenty minutes of terrific cobbled to two hours of tedium may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a better average than some, and for the brave or foolhardy this is something to try out and see if it’s to your own taste.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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