Annette is absolutely preposterous. It’s exactly the type of thing that I’d dismiss as being super pretentious if it weren’t so damn enjoyable. Ask yourself what a Sparks musical directed by Leos Carax looks like and try to imagine it. Can you see it? Well, what you’re imagining is correct. Annette delivers 100% on its promise of “a Sparks musical directed by Leos Carax”. If those qualifiers mean nothing to you, that’s okay as well. There are plenty of pleasures to be had within the absolute insanity on display, and if you’re the type to buy a ticket even just on the strength of “Adam Driver sings,” you won’t be disappointed.
And boy does Adam Driver sing! Quite well I might add. Is there anything that tall drink of water can’t do? Driver is impossibly talented, and Annette is a showcase for the full expanse of his abilities. In it, he plays Henry McHenry, an avant-garde stand-up comedian whose stardom is nearing its peak. He’s in a relationship with world-famous opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard, who can also really REALLY sing). Together they are the celebrity couple the tabloids love most (sorry, Bennifer 2.0), and when it turns out Ann is pregnant, tension starts brewing. Ann gives birth to a radiant child (played here by an incredibly well-designed puppet) who has quite the singing voice of her own. Soon after, the pressures of the public eye come to a head. There’s much much more crammed into the film’s near 2.5-hour runtime, but the gist is simple: the life of the celebrity artist is one with unique troubles, as well as unique opportunities to do gigantic things, both good and bad.
Where Annette doesn’t quite stack up to its pedigree is here in the thematic framework. For a film that is constantly pushing boundaries of what can be done within the medium, it’s all in service of a story that, at least to some degree, has been done many times before. It’s done quite well here, but little is being said that hasn’t already been said in other movies about celebrity and celebrity culture. As for the musical and filmmaking prowess employed to tell the story, well, you simply can’t do better. There’s something about Sparks’ oddball lyrical structure that translates very well to a musical that didn’t pre-record its performers. As I understand it, most if not all of the singing was recorded live during the shoot (a Carax decree) in order to dissolve some of the artifice inherent to musicals. This means that if a character is performing a physical action (ya know, like cunnilingus) their style of singing will reflect their physical circumstances. It’s why pop stars use backing tracks — singing while dancing is very hard. Sparks songs often repeat a single lyric to the point of it becoming nonsense…and then, through further repetition, becoming transcendent. I imagine that integrating choreography and singing is much more accessible to a performer when the lyrics are so repetitive, but it’s wonderful to see this used in a way that isn’t a crutch when it so easily could be. A refrain of “we love each other so much” is repeated soooo many times throughout the film, but each new iteration sounds entirely different than any that came before, due in part to the limitations inherent to having the actors sing in real-time, as well as to that strange Sparks magic that uses non-intuitive lyrical/melody choices to simultaneously shake up and enrapture the listener.
Visually, Annette bounces back and forth between shots of underdressed simplicity and those bursting with detail. A standout sequence on a boat (you know it from the poster) uses a background projection of turbulent seas in conjunction with practical rain and a highly mobile boat set. It’s infinitely more effective than the CGI artifice you’re used to in film despite being the exact sort of craft you’d see on a stage. With film musicals, the main challenge is typically that of adapting the work from stage to screen. In the case of Annette, an original movie with no stage counterpart, that challenge is non-existent. However, it still manages to walk that fine line that so many stage-to-screen adaptations fail to manage. Could Annette be translated to the stage? My guess is that it very much could (and I’d love to see Carax take a stab at it).
The talk around Annette will naturally gravitate toward gushing over the wonderful performances of Cotillard and Driver, as well as the popular resurgence of Sparks (and their acquisition of new fans like myself), but for my money, it’s Simon Helberg who runs away with the film. He’s a lesser role, that of Ann’s infatuated pianist, but he draws the eye every single time he’s on-screen. He’s clearly playing the music himself, sings the best out of all of our leads, and tells so much of his character’s story using just his body, even in lyrically heavy moments. In one sequence, in which he’s conducting an orchestra, the camera circles around him while he does his work. As the camera passes his face, he breaks the fourth wall and sings his feelings to us in the audience. As the camera moves behind him, we can see that he’s still conducting a huge orchestra. So many pieces are in play in this sequence — it’s a logistical marvel if you stop to think about what’s being mounted — but it’s Helberg who anchors it all. Perhaps my favorite performance of the year so far.
The most exciting thing about Annette is the way it breaks the formal rules of a musical, most notably in how it begins and ends its songs. A tune can come out of nowhere and end in an instant. No lead-up, no fade-out, no signs of a larger scale rhythm. Suddenly we’re in a song, suddenly we’re out. Once again, credit to Sparks, two men to whom music seems to present itself, apropos of nothing. I know little about them, but per the excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers, it seems safe to say that just about everything is a muse to Ron and Russell Mael, so random influxes of melody are likely a normal occurrence to them. Even if Annette offered nothing else, it’s quite nice to live in their reality for a few hours.
Released in Philadelphia at Ritz Five on August 6, 2021, as part of a limited nationwide release, and on Amazon Prime on August 20, 2021.