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Review: Annette

August 23, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

So may we start?

These are the words that the film’s cast, flanked by a chorus of backup singers, sings during the rapturous, single-take opening sequence of Annette, asking for the audience’s attention as they request to start the show.

Taking us from inside a studio and out into the streets, it’s an audacious opening to this very strange new musical, which serves as a years in the making collaboration between French filmmaker Leos Carax and the musical duo Sparks.

Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the film as a whole when I finished watching it the other night, and I feel like time and another viewing are needed to fully absorb everything about it. But I think that’s the point?

This is a pretty bold movie in a lot of ways that, and it is a lot to take in for a variety of reasons, causing some extreme reactions in both directions. But I would expect nothing less from a collaboration between Carax, who is best known for directing the mesmerizing 2012 film Holy Motors, and Sparks, the sibling pairing of Ron and Russel Mael who had their own enigmatic career highlighted in Edgar Wright’s recent documentary The Sparks Brothers. The result is a film that is strange to a fault, yet always intriguing and at times hypnotic, building to a weirdly emotional ending.

The film starts off as a love story between Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a provocative standup comedian, and Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), a beloved opera singer. We are introduced to both characters through a sequence that cross-cuts between their vastly different shows. Henry roams about the stage in a bathrobe surrounded by smoke cycling through a mix of songs and purposely offensive jokes, keeping the audience in the palm of his hand with sold out shows that blur the line between performance art and standup. Think Bo Burnham by way of Bill Burr.

Ann is all grace as she performs opera, cycling through a mix of dying on stage and receiving standing ovations, which Henry draws attention to in his act with a bit about “dying and bowing” that borders on mockery and drips with resentment. This sequence shows that these two performers couldn’t be farther apart in terms of their art, making their relationship ripe for tabloid fodder. After a whirlwind first act showing Henry and Ann performing and making love (including a much buzzed about moment when Henry lifts his head to sing while going down on her), it’s soon revealed that Ann is pregnant.

The couple has a baby girl named Annette, a special child brought to life through a wondrous feat of puppeteering who, shall we say, has some unique gifts, setting the stage for the second half of the film. The distinctive first and second halves of Annette are connected by a very dark interlude set at sea that is integral to the plot and was clearly filmed on a sound stage, which Carax doesn’t even try to hide. The staginess of it seems intentional and somehow adds to the almost dreamlike atmosphere of the film, which has elements of both fairy tale and tragedy.

After the birth of the child, Ann’s star continues to rise, while Henry’s career begins to go off the deep end, causing him to become increasingly volatile. The third major character is Ann’s accompanist (Simon Helberg), who sings of his jealousy towards Henry. One of the most memorably cinematic moments is a half-sung, half-spoken monologue that Helberg delivers while conducting the orchestra, the camera spinning 360 degrees around him.

The story is predominantly told through song, with the compositions of Ron and Russell Mael, who appear in various cameo roles, providing the driving force of the film. In fact, much of the dialogue is sung to one degree or another, with the actors doing all of their own singing. The characters don’t just break into song at key moments like in most musicals, so Annette could be more accurately described as a rock opera in this way.

At the centre of it all is Driver, who is excellent in the role of an irredeemable narcissist. There isn’t much to like about Henry, who is beloved on stage for his fearless brand of no-holds-barred shock humour, yet is petty and thin-skinned in real life, unable to cope with the idea of others being more successful than him. The role allows Driver to cycle through a variety of different modes, from comedic and dramatic to angry and vengeful, and in some ways it’s like a highlight reel of his career. A nearly ten minute sequence partway through the film where he writhes about on stage acting out a fight with Ann serves as a great standalone showcase for his acting talents.

The film does feel slightly long at a whopping 140 minutes, and the story itself sort of meanders at times. The narrative is stitched together using fake Showbiz News clips that function as bridges between scenes and help provide exposition for the plot, but are somewhat cheesy in their presentation. But, while not every element of Annette is equally successful and it sometimes keeps us at arm’s length emotionally, we always know we are watching something singular and there is a lot to admire in the film’s boldness.

The screenplay, which is credited to Carax and the Mael brothers, addresses a variety of topics including toxic masculinity, abusive relationships, the #MeToo movement, the corrosive nature of fame, and the exploitation of child stars. It is a pretty full meal in this regard, but Annette‘s exploration of these themes sometimes feels a bit too surface level. There is certainly a debate to be had over how it depicts these things, particularly in regards to its handling of domestic and sexual abuse. While I would recommend avoiding spoilers, you should have some idea of what you are getting into with the film.

Yes, Annette is a very strange movie, and one that is bound to inspire a wide range of reactions right across the spectrum, which it seems to welcome and perhaps even encourage. But Driver’s go-for-broke performance and an unwavering adherence to its own fantastical weirdness makes it something of a must see, especially for fans of Carax and Sparks. The film builds to a surprisingly moving final scene that ends on a haunting final frame. It’s bound to be the weirdest musical in this year of musicals, and I mean that in a good way.

Annette is now playing in select theatres and is also available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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