My first descriptor of Leos Carax’s Annette is going to be a dirty word: meta.
It is that, among any number of other, more polarizing things. Within the first few minutes, you (the treasured audience member) are warned not to fart or breathe during the show. Then, the two central creative forces behind the movie arrive on screen: the director, the French renegade Leos Carax, and the band Sparks, the brothers Mael fresh off their recent wave of popularity brought on by Edgar Wright’s documentary, The Sparks Brothers. Right off, Annette acknowledges the odd cocktail of authorship that brought it into being and they may as well be saying to their audience, “You are watching a movie. We are its creators. Here are the performers.” Despite this would-be distancing from the narrative that follows, and in spite of the seemingly contradictory forces at work behind the scenes, Annette has a rambunctious, all-singing, bull-in-a-china-shop fervor and sincerity to every aspect of its being. Or most of them, at least.
To be resolved above all else is the enigma of this Sparks-Carax partnership. Not its real life origins or its on set function, but the ways in which their respective fingerprints show in the movie itself. The writers and composers: the operatic, generally jovial Mael brothers have had a long, prolific career, producing their own brand of pop, glam rock, and indulging whatever other musical whims they may have along the way. On the other hand, the director and co-writer: Leos Carax, a filmmaker whose work is as absurd as it is dark and filthy. At a glance, the man behind 1991’s Lovers on the Bridge, with its quiet morbidity and less-than-romantic images of love does not seem particularly suited to be the cinematic interpreter of a Sparks narrative (or I thought as much). Looking back at the Mael brothers’ 2009 radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, their appreciation for film is apparent, as is their idiosyncratic, broad strokes storytelling method. The world of Sparks is populated by blatant archetypes, people that say exactly what they mean (often over and over again), chanting crowds, and tortured artists of the borderline parody variety. Theirs is a more colorful and cartoonish realm than Carax’s and this conflict is immediately apparent in the movie. Carax creates what is, for the most part, a realistic world around these absurd, archetypal characters. Buildings, clothing, and people are recognizable as of our world, the camera is not some reality breaking device, and it almost appears as if the movie is going to succumb to the traps of other recent musicals. (I mean to say that many recent musicals, In the Heights and La La Land among them, look so real that it seems ridiculous for the figures on screen to be dancing and singing through life.) For these first minutes, the respective styles of Sparks and Carax are like oil and water. Then, Annette is born, and she is born a puppet.
Annette checks many of the aforementioned stylistic boxes necessary to be a Sparks story. Perhaps because my relationship with the work of Sparks is longer than with that of Carax, and perhaps because the catalogue of the former is much larger, I am tempted to say that Annette feels more like a Sparks project than a Carax. Of course, I have to account for the ridiculousness of that statement and for my own ignorance. This preface exists to announce that I will be focusing more on the sensibilities of the Mael brothers (who began work on the project long before it was intended as a film) and less on Carax’s direction. The film follows the rocky relationship of violent stand-up comic Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and superstar opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), as well as the bombastic destiny of their gifted offspring. From the birth of the puppet child Annette, the movie hits its stride. Every aspect of the realistic environment around her is called into question by Annette’s very presence, it almost becomes more absurd because she exists within it. Annette being a puppet also serves as a constant reminder that this is a movie and it is populated not by people, but characters. Characters that look right at the camera and explain their pasts, motivations, and desires. The miracle of the writing is that these techniques, which would seem snarky or tongue-in-cheek elsewhere, are not attempting to cover for the film’s shortcomings. If anything, these interludes reveal the movie as an earnest piece of art in and of itself. Not one time is a fourth wall break used to the ends of self-pity, self-criticism, or any of the other insincere and cynical acknowledgements that are all too prevalent in art today. These ideas are even built into the movie’s text in the form of Driver’s McHenry whose confessional, metatextual performances are criticized (if not mocked) for their belittling of the audience. From the start, Annette is intimately aware that it is a film, one with genuine thoughts about love and art and fame. None of its views are particularly profound, in fact they have been the subject of innumerable stories, but they are particularly potent to the Mael brothers and to Carax. They bare themselves without shame or self-hatred and with the utmost sincerity. Artistic expression should remain artistic expression and no performer should be required to suffer in front of their audience in the name of entertainment.
What of the rest? Are the songs good? Are Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard going to win Oscars? Will Simon Helberg finally escape The Big Bang Theory? That’s up to you, treasured reader. Speaking for myself, I have long been in love with Sparks’ operatic, repetitious glam rock, though my friends tell me it isn’t for everyone and as much as I disagree, their opinions are their opinions. So, for their sake, I tell you: be warned. Driver, Cotillard, and even Helberg (on second thought, especially Helberg) deliver in the performance department, as could only be expected. A few images are lingering in my mind and I expect them to linger a while longer, specifically those in which Carax uses fades to great effect. Most aspects are so in line with expectations that I would feel bored going through the list and saying things like, “Yes, Adam Driver is a great actor,” for another few superfluous paragraphs. As of my writing this, few people have seen Annette. Several of those people strongly dislike this movie, time will tell if they are the majority, but for the most part, I enjoyed it. Annette is flawed and strange and alienating, but there was a quality in its pleas for sincerity that I found refreshing. I would feel greedy if I asked for anything more.