Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play star-crossed lovers in this spectacular musical melodrama from 'Holy Motors' director Leos Carax and art-pop duo Sparks.
August 26, 2021
Dreamy and dazzling from its first moments, rock opera Annette bursts onto the screen with a simple question: "so may we start?". As the opening credits roll, the long-awaited latest film from Holy Motors director Leos Carax addresses its audience before it poses that query — via an unseen announcer who tells viewers "you are now kindly requested to keep silent, and to hold your breath until the end of the show" — but the movie doesn't begin to truly kick into gear until the filmmaker himself asks if things can get going. Images of a recording studio flicker, with Carax on one side of the glass and Ron and Russell Mael, of art-pop duo Sparks, on the other. Carax tells his real-life daughter Nastya that the fun is about to commence, and the Mael brothers start singing and playing keyboard, with a band around them. Soon, however, everyone is on their feet and spilling out into the street, with the feature's stars Adam Driver (Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker), Marion Cotillard (We'll End Up Together) and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) joining them in the glorious, song-fuelled, sing-and-walk scene.
No one is playing a character here yet, but they're all still playing a part. They're finally coming together for the big spectacle that is this eagerly anticipated film — which has been in the works since 2016 — and they're setting the vibe in a bold and sensational way. The tune is pure Sparks, with the pair both composing the movie's music and writing the feature itself with Carax. The tone bubbles with the pair's avant-garde sensibilities, too, and the whole song echoes with the promise of remarkable things to come. Grand and resonant despite its low-key staging and setting, Annette's memorable opening number ends with the Maels, Carax and his daughter, and some of the film's supporting cast members farewelling the feature's two protagonists — with Driver and Cotillard putting on clothing their characters will favour during the rest of the movie during the track. "Bye Henry," the crowd exclaims as the standup comic played by Driver zips off on a motorcycle. "Bye Ann," they chirp at the opera star played by Cotillard as she's chauffeured off in a black SUV. The audience is sent tumbling through the looking glass now, and diving in deep.
Nine years ago, Carax gave the world a once-in-a-lifetime gem. Annette is a different film to Holy Motors, obviously, but it gleams just as brightly and with the same beguiling, inimitable, all-encompassing allure. There's an ethereal, otherworldly quality to Carax's work — of heightening reality to truly understand how people feel and act, and of experimenting with artforms to interrogate them — and that sensation seeps through every second of his gleefully melodramatic musical, which deservedly won him the Cannes Film Festival's Best Director award. Everything about Annette has been turned up several notches on every setting, from its lush and lavish imagery to its cascade of toe-tapping, sung-through tunes that keep propelling the narrative forward. Every character detail, both external and internalised, has been amplified as well. This is a movie where Driver's Henry wears the same shade of green over and over like a uniform, beaming his envy at every turn. It's a film where sex scenes involve singing, as though they're the only way these characters can really convey their innermost emotions. And, it's a feature where the titular character — the baby born of Henry McHenry and Ann Defrasnoux's mismatched but passionate and all-consuming love — is played by a marionette. This is a tragedy and a fairy tale, in other words, because life so often veers between elements of both.
Henry and Ann "love each other so much", as another of Annette's catchy tunes intones repeatedly, but it's apparent from the outset that their chalk-and-cheese affair has its struggles. Early on, the film contrasts their on-stage antics to quickly but effectively express their dissimilarities. In a show called The Ape of God, Henry broods over the microphone as he struts and shakes in nothing but underwear and a bathrobe, and opines about how he loves killing his audiences with his brutal and brusque comedy. He talks about how Ann is always dying in her operas, with cuts to her sweet soprano singing and heartbreaking death scenes underscoring his point. These juxtapositions keep simmering as the paparazzi charts the couple's romance, and as Ann's pregnancy brings Annette into their lives. The girl has an astonishing gift, but her presence can't save the movie's star-crossed lovers — or moonlit paramours, to be more accurate — from continuing to weather stormy seas.
The Maels and Carax haven't held back in almost every facet of the feature; that aforementioned delight of an opening number is perhaps the most restrained thing they splash across the screen. The story sprawls, the lively and clever songs keep coming, and this intricately, overtly stylised affair pushes wave after wave of hypnotic imagery, mesmerising music and heated, near-Shakespearean relationship dramas into its frames. Expectedly and welcomely given the melding of creative minds behind it, it's a movie filled with idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. It's so very Carax, as fans of the director's back catalogue will instantly spot. It's so very Sparks as well, which is evident even if you're new to the duo despite their five-decade-plus career, or if you've only just discovered them via stellar documentary The Sparks Brothers. It's "so much" just like Henry and Ann's love, and it adores it — and it happily and vibrantly melds elements of cinema, gigs, opera and live performance, all while weaving in everything from commentary about celebrity culture and stints of singing cunnilingus, and also knowing that it's constantly toeing the line between oh-so-exaggerated and oh-so-heartfelt.
Annette is also long, and both looping and sometimes a little loopy. It satirises, unpacks and embraces, and it loves being multiple paradoxes at once. It thrusts forward with its own pull — but once you're caught in the thrall of its exuberance, playfulness, overwhelming emotions and surreal touches, you're as subject to its whims as Henry and Ann. Inhabiting those parts, Driver and Cotillard commit to the ride. The former visibly cycles between resembling both Ron and Russell Mael in one of the film's devilishly joyous small flourishes, and bustles through the movie like a force of nature. The latter always feels like her co-star's delicate counterweight, while also ensuring that Ann's light, grace and yearning shine through. Their strings are being pulled masterfully by Carax and Sparks, as are viewers' — and yes, we want them to start, and then to never stop.
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