BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC French writer/director/film critic Leos Carax, responsible for the absurdist masterwork Holy Motors, is back with an oddball operatic musical called Annette, for which he collaborated with Sparks, aka the greatest band you’ve probably never heard of. Sparks is comprised of brothers Ronald and Russell Mael who for the past 55 years have somehow managed to remain bleeding edge of music, with just the right blend of complexity and quirk. If you’ve seen Edgar Wright’s the excellent Sparks doc The Sparks Brothers, you know the brothers Mael have spent a rather large portion of their career trying to make their way to the silver screen. Given the brother’s proclaimed love of Goddard and the French New Wave, it only made sense their cinematic debut would come courtesy of the more culture savvy French. And it was worth the wait — Annette is a weird-beard tour de force.
Unlike Holy Motors, which utilized an episodic narrative structure, Annette is near-linear in its storytelling. The plot unfolds in the celebrity-obsessed fishbowl of Hollywood, where stand-up comedian provocateur Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) marries the world-famous soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), and after a whirlwind romance, conceives a daughter they name Annette. For reasons not entirely clear, Annette is portrayed as a wooden marionette (hence the name) in contrast to her very much living and breathing costars. Think of Annette as a female Pinocchio, definitely not CGI, very practical, and often unnerving until you get used to her. The story soon takes a turn for the tragic when Ann is lost at sea one stormy night on their yacht, amid whispers of foul play.
Given Sparks love of eccentric metaphor and wordplay, the choice of the marionette is more than a weird stylistic choice and in fact serves two purposes. Firstly, the marionette represents the fact that the children of celebrity couples are often relegated to simple objects or things to be fought over in custody battles. Secondly, it’s only after Annette speaks out against her father for putting her on tour to capitalize on his wife’s death that she becomes a real girl.
The music here is a mix of deep cuts from Sparks’ back catalog, largely drawn from 1974’s Propaganda (“Thanks But No Thanks” and “Bon Voyage”), mixed with new compositions written specifically for the film. The meta opening number “So May We Start” starts in a recording studio with Sparks recording the song before handing off the melody off to Driver and Cotillard who then get into wardrobe, into vehicles and into their respective first scenes. This amid meta-lyrics about production budget concerns and audience etiquette.
Like Holy Motors, Annette is very raw. Performances feel less rehearsed than improvised in single long takes, that highlight both the intensity of expression and the exhaustion that invariably ensues. In the beginning the film’s look is heavily inspired by old Hollywood with its heavy use of rear projection and dream-like cinematography, with everything picture perfect to the point of artificiality. But the unreality slowly erodes over the course of the film’s tw-hour running time and by the end we are very much in the gritty real world.
Driver shoulders much of the film and his performance exceeds the highwater mark of his work in Marriage Story. Henry McHenry is unlikable and unhinged and his comedy act is a series of monologues that are internal explorations of love and anger painfully externalized on stage, often performed in speedos and a bathrobe. He is a conflicted father, struggling with regret and battling his demons in front of an audience. Think embarrassing over the top performance art meets poetry slam, all while breaking into the occasional song.
Still, Driver, acting opposite a puppet, manages to sell Henry and his fragile father daughter relationship which slowly evolves into the dark heart of the film. Ultimately, Henry chooses to push his daughter away just when you would expect him to hold her close. This stark choice magnifies the film’s darker moments and portrays the consequences of Ann’s death on Henry and just how far he is willing to go to keep his dark secret safe, and his daughter on tour making money. It’s not for everyone, films this uncompromising rarely are, but for those that give themselves over to Annette are in for a wild ride.