‘Annette’ Review — A Musical Masterpiece That Defies all Expectations and Conventions

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Annette Review

Before we get started, I just have to be entirely clear. I am a huge fan of Sparks, the venerable art pop duo consisting of Ron and Russell Mael. I am also a fan of the films of Leos Carax, the French auteur behind unique masterworks such as Holy Motors and Mauvais Sang. Naturally, I was beyond excited when it was announced that Carax would be directing an original musical composed by Sparks entitled Annette. I am obviously the film’s target audience. And yet Annette didn’t meet my expectations. It absolutely destroyed them. Annette is a brazen masterpiece that defies all expectations. There are going to be a lot of people that will straight-up hate Annette and its darkly tragic tale of a doomed love. Then there will be those, like myself, that love Annette for what it is – a complex and confoundingly beautiful baby born of two sets of incredible artists unbound by any set of conventions.

Before the film really gets going, the director asks the audiences for their undivided attention, even going as far as to implore the auditorium to withhold breathing throughout the duration of the film. Sitting in a Los Angeles music studio, the director then asks the patiently waiting Ron and Russell Mael a simple question, “So, may we start?” And with that Russell Mael counts it off and Ron Mael’s fingers begin tapping his keyboard as the opening number “So May We Start” begins. The song is the most catchy and upbeat song in the entire film, a lyrically clever work that not only teases the film’s upcoming plot but is also self-referential about the trials and tribulations of preproduction and securing financing.

Then the band starts walking out the studio, Carax not far behind and they’re tracked in a lengthy Steadicam shot. Soon the Maels cede the front of the frame as the film’s stars take center stage. The parade marches down the streets of Santa Monica and its absolutely dazzling. As a Sparks fan, I found it amusing to see the pure joy on Russell Mael’s face as the procession moves forward. He just can’t hide his joy. As the rousing opening number comes to a close, the cast goes their separate ways and the film can truly start.

Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is a stand-up comedian, the kind of bad boy who takes the stage in a bathrobe with a cigarette in hand as he tells the hard truths that others won’t dare say aloud. Ann (Marion Cotillard) is an opera singer, a diva of divine talent and beauty. This pairing has fallen madly in love with one another. After the opening number, they go to their respective performances. Henry unleashes his confessional comedic sermons to an eager audience. This is where you get the first glimpse of the anger and ego that boils under Henry’s surface. Across town, Ann takes the stage in her opera. In his routine, Henry casually demeans his new love’s occupation, referencing how her performances are nothing more than a nightly routine of “dying and bowing.” But Ann is a true diva, an artist who voice and beauty entrances her audience in a way that Henry could never achieve. This disparity between the couple’s talent and respectability leads to a bit of confusion from the rabid tabloid media.

As Ann and Henry escape the peering eyes of the tabloid cameras, they go to their secluded home. During the song “We Love Each Other So Much,” Carax takes us deep into the emotional and physical connection these two share. There have been headlines about the sexual nature of these scenes, but they’re very much in the fashion that Carax has previously captured passionate sexual congress. Their love soon yields its own separate magic in the form of their daughter Annette. Carax makes the brazen choice to have Annette presented as a puppet, and not a particularly realistic-looking one. However, this choice isn’t just an aesthetic choice. It’s more about how Henry sees those around him, but especially his daughter – an object through which he can find some sense of absolution for his growingly dissatisfied soul. Without diving into specifics that would spoil some of the film’s later plot twists and turns, the objectification of Annette becomes clear in the film’s final heartbreaking scene.

Henry’s career begins to falter as Ann’s continually soars. Then there are the allegations of sexual violence levied against the comedian. The mounting pressures push Henry towards the bottle, and the once-romantic lover becomes more and more detached from his wife and daughter. This really starts to culminate in a magnificent sequence on a yacht in a storm. The waves crashing, the actors flailing in rhythm, a dancing duet on sea legs. And then tragedy strikes. What exactly happens I won’t dare divulge, but only Henry and Annette are able to find their way to the shore.

It’s not long before Annette starts to sing with an angelic voice, a hypnotic harmony seeming culled from the heavens. Henry shows his daughter’s talents to Ann’s former collaborator The Conductor (Simon Helberg), who himself had affections for Ann. Soon, Henry, The Conductor, and Annette are traveling the world and enchanting audiences with the child’s amazing voice. However, Henry’s growing instability and inner darkness continues to boil beneath the surface as build towards a breaking point.

There’s a pervasive sense of impending doom running through Annette. A key reason for that is that Annette is by no means a conventional movie musical. It ain’t La La Land. It’s ain’t Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s much more akin to an opera. That being said, it’s the blending of its two distinct styles that makes Annette such a stunning sight to behold. The songs and lyrics are very much the work of Sparks, even if sometimes it sounds odd to hear the works of the Maels voiced by someone other than Russell. The filmmaking on display is very much Leos Carax. The director employs plenty of long, meticulous shots, amidst this visual tapestry of love, death, fame, jealousy, and even elements of the supernatural. When I said that some people are going to absolutely hate Annette, what I really meant was that this is a stunning, thoughtful, and provocative work of art and that might be a little off-putting for someone expecting a simple entertainment, a mere song and dance picture. For those that wind up hating Annette, I won’t say you’re wrong but I suspect that you’re looking for a movie to connect with you on your terms and not its terms.

Annette is also an incredible showcase for the film’s talented cast. Adam Driver gives the finest performance of his career. On the stage, he twists and turns; thrusts and pivots, giving Henry McHenry a genuinely affecting physicality. Driver is also unafraid to make his character deeply unlikable at times, pushing himself deeper and deeper into his character’s fractured psyche. Now his singing isn’t going to make him an overnight popstar, sure, but you what? Adam Driver gives it his all in every scene, every song of this movie. As his love, Marion Cotillard is a bit more reserved as a character. She keeps the façade of her angelic diva admirably, though the emotion eventually bubbles to the surface. The biggest surprise in all of the cast is Simon Helberg as The Conductor. I never cared for The Big Bang Theory and am mostly unfamiliar with his work aside from a great bit part in the Coen BrothersA Serious Man. But Helberg is simply phenomenal here. He is a man with emotions burning deep within that come out in moments of song, but he’s also a man of duty. He’s the conscience of the story. Fans of Sparks should also keep their eyes alert as Ron and Russell Mael make a number of discrete cameos.

In the end, Annette is a singular triumph of the cinematic arts. I can’t think of a single film I could compare it to. There are bits and pieces throughout that are somewhat reminiscent of some of Carax’s other films, but there’s truly never been anything like Annette. I wouldn’t blame anyone for having a negative reaction to Annette, but there’s so much in this film that its very hard to absorb everything going on in a single viewing. I will return to Annette over and over in the coming months because there’s just so much to chew on visually, emotionally, musically, and philosophically. It may have taken Sparks a long time to get their cinematic dreams to the screen, but now that it’s here through the vision of Leos Carax they’ve made a one-of-kind masterpiece that will talked about and hotly debated for years and years to come.

Annette opens in select theaters on August 6, 2021 and streams on Amazon Prime on August 20, 2021. 

  • Annette

Overall Score

A musical masterpiece that defies expectations and conventions, Annette is a singular achievement that is destined to divide audiences. With an astonishing performance by Adam Driver and the magical collaboration between Sparks and director Leos Carax, Annette will endure as a masterwork well beyond any short term backlash.

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