I found myself smiling from start to finish.
That was… something else.
Originally conceived by famed music duo, Sparks, as a new album/tour titled ‘The Seduction of Ingar Bergman’, this wild musical tale was deemed too difficult to produce as a nightly, travelling tour with the amount of cast members required to pull it off. Rather than binning this idea all together, brothers Ron and Russell Mael (aka Sparks) reworked their concept into a feature film.
Coming off the success of the critically acclaimed Edgar Wright documentary (and my personal introduction to the band Sparks), The Sparks Bros., I had somewhat of a grasp on the quirkiness and the truly exacerbated artistic tendencies of these brothers. However, I, and I’m assuming most people who have an understanding of Sparks as artists (even outside of their music), will still be caught off guard by the fever-dream that is Annette.
Directed by French filmmaker Leos Carax (Holy Motors), Annette feels like an art exhibition, mixed with a stage play, mixed with a movie. On paper, a “movie” like this should not work at all, but somehow, the mad genius of Carax has formed an incredibly captivating piece of cinemas, unlike anything I’ve seen before. Carax captures the absurdity of this film with smooth, long takes and sharp cinematography, combined with surreal editing techniques that give Annette life outside of the screen that the story is taking place in. On a technical level, Carax has crafted possibly his masterpiece of filmmaking, juggling something that doesn’t fit within the confines of what we know as a ‘movie’, but still something that plays out as an entertaining piece of media that does (in a more convoluted way) tell an intriguing story. Obviously working incredibly close with Sparks to create the films tone and aesthetic, Carax is the perfect fit for this tale.
Henry (Adam Driver, Marriage Story) is a controversial stand up comedian who is engaged to world-renowned opera singer, Ann (Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night). On the surface, their love is made of the tabloids, all smiles and kisses. But behind closed doors, it is not all as it seems. In order to keep their ‘romance’ alive, the two decide to have a child (during the now infamous ‘singing-sex-scene’ that you may have read about). However, once their child, Annette, turns 2, they discover a secret talent of hers that changes their lives.
Annette is a simple story. It does cover lots of themes such as love and how that can be altered by fame, or the difficulties of not being the persona you are famous for. It almost seems like the Mael brothers are slyly commentating to their own critics through this story, even down to the fact that random snippets of an Entertainment Tonight-esque showbiz show are used to show how far forward the film has jumped in time (possibly an allusion to how celebrity narratives are written by the tabloids?). This film does a good job at conveying these themes, albeit through artistically absurd methods and songs. However, while the story is simple and the technicalities of the movie are great, there are points where the latter overruns the telling of the story.
Annette’s biggest downfall is it’s dragged out runtime. Clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes, the first hour of this film, while stylistically amazing, really spreads it’s story thin. It’s a slow drag that only so much visual flair can keep you invested in. And while there are no scenes that particularly stand out as bad, there were more than a few times I felt like the movie could pick up that pace or cut a scene short. The balance of telling an interesting story and making a piece of media that is more than just a movie is a tight-line to stand on, and when Carax and Sparks do it, it’s great. However, when they don’t, the movie does suffer because of it.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Annette’s focus in the first half is on the romance between Henry (Driver) and Ann (Cotillard). Both of these actors are already well documented at being elite in a variety of films, both with Oscar notoriety (a win for Cotillard and nominations for Driver). Annette is an opportunity to allow both actors to really show off their range, and not just in a musical sense. Both are competent singers in this movie, not to be compared to the likes of a Jennifer Hudson Dreamgirls moment, but within the confines of this story and the tone the film sets, both actors do a fine job.
Cotillard is more reserved as renowned opera singer, Ann. A woman who is fuelled by her love for her singing as much as the love for Henry, Cotillard does a great job of subtly showing the audience that she is torn by choice. However, as the story darkens and goes deeper into her relationship behind all the fame and lights, a more frightened version of Ann is seen, which Cotillard does a phenomenal job with as well.
The film is primarily Driver’s vehicle, allowing him to exhibit a much larger range for Henry’s story. His deadpan, dark sense of humour as a controversial stand up comedian lets Driver throw himself into prolonged monologues (a definite strength of Driver’s after Marriage Story). However, there is also a joy within watching Driver be able to let a bit more loose with the musical numbers. The vulnerability he shows in this artistic expression is thoroughly entertaining. As Henry devolves into a darker emotional abyss throughout Annette, Driver holds his ground and becomes transparent with his character.
Although integral to the plot much later in the movie, it was nice to see a more dramatic turn from Simon Helberg. This movie only gives us a slight taste at the potential he has as an actor, and hopefully this is the first step for him in getting more roles in films like this with filmmaker, like Carax, who can get these performances out of actors.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
From the immaculate set design, colourful costumes and “design” of Baby Annette, this film really stands out on it’s own. As it’s been said, this film feels like an art-exhibition. Each frame and set has been specifically designed for the scene it is featured in, and a lot of passion and care has been put into these things. I’m not usually someone who understands why certain colours are used for certain scenes or things of the like, but I definitely knew that in Annette, everything had a reason for being on screen at that time, in that place. All of these elements are highlighted by the incredible stage-esque lighting and phenomenal cinematography on display.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
In the vein of musical/movies such as Les Miserables, this film is predominately sing-speak. Characters converse through song and the story is propelled forward by music - all of which has been originally written by Sparks themselves. Legends in their own right, and with over 50 years of experience making music, it’s no surprise that the score, songs and lyrics of Annette are fantastic within the film itself. A diverse orchestral score bellows throughout, accompanied by brash choir vocals that are used to set up the context of the scene that follows. Outside of the cinematic score, each song can occasionally feel quite similar to the other, unless it’s a pivotal emotional scene in the story that throws everything at the audience is a visceral way. In the smaller scenes, it seems that the singing has been done live on camera, and the mixing in these moments is executed well.
Annette will stun moviegoers with it’s dashing visuals, amazing music and strong lead performances. It’s a wild ride, unlike anything that would be traditionally considered “a movie”. It’s an art exhibition fuelled by the zany likes of Sparks. The movie takes over an hour to be fully engaged with the story, but it’s strong second half and touching finale make it a worthwhile story to be invested in. And the plethora of visual and auditory stimulation doesn’t hurt either!