Written by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Leos Carax
Directed by Leos Carax
Annette is a movie whose fans won’t simply like this picture, but they will adore it. The film is the brainchild of eccentric musicians Sparks (brothers Ron & Russell Mael), who have been itching to get into cinema for decades. In the 1970s, they were on the verge of collaborating with French comedic filmmaker Jacques Tati until he took ill. Now they have produced a film that most certainly their own, full of strange musings on death & love, all suffused with a wry sense of dark humor. I can’t say I loved this movie, but I certainly appreciated what a unique production it was; it’s genuinely unlike anything else coming out right now.
Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is a provocative stand-up comedian nicknamed “The Ape of God.” He’s fallen in love with and become engaged to the operatic soprano Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard). Unfortunately, Henry’s comedic career is on the downturn as his offensive schtick is wearing thin with audiences who see it as lacking substance. Ann, on the other hand, is becoming more in demand and is constantly traveling. When their first child, Annette, is born, Henry becomes the domestic, staying at home and caring for the child. While going from one venue to the next, Ann dreams of a press conference where six women come forward to talk about the abuses they suffered under Henry.
Their relationship is on the rocks, so they disconnect from the world and embark on a yachting trip that catches them in the middle of a storm. Ann falls overboard when Henry drunkenly forces her to dance with him as waves crash over them on the ship’s deck. Annette begins to sing after this moment whenever a light is shined on her, and her voice is a carbon copy of her mother’s singing. Henry sees this as an opportunity to make money and polish his tarnished star and begins having the child perform in concert halls and stadiums. All the while, he’s haunted by two versions of Ann, the loving woman he met at first and her vengeful spirit that wants to drag him down for her death.
The most visually unique element of the film is that Annette is performed using a marionette puppet. The movie is not attempting to present itself as a piece of realism. Instead, it is comfortable letting the audience see the artifice and staginess of the production. This, like a lot of stage productions, is about the audience’s suspension of disbelief. I find it a clever workaround to have a child character that can sing on cue, and it ends up playing into the movie’s narrative. By the end of the film, things have gotten terrible for Henry, and in his final moment with his daughter, she transforms from a puppet into a real child (Devyn McDowell). My interpretation of this is that for the first time, Henry sees his child as a real person, not something he can manipulate to hurt his wife and gain clout for himself.
Young McDowell delivers a show-stealing performance in her one scene. At the age of only 5, she doesn’t just give a “cute kid singing” moment but a heartbreaking explosion of anger & resentment towards the people supposed to protect her. She vows never to sing again and live in darkness out of spite towards her murderous father and her spectral mother using the child from beyond the grave to strike out her husband. It’s an absolutely mesmerizing scene that was my favorite of the whole picture. I wish I could say the rest of the movie hit this high of a mark, but it does have some ponderous, unentertaining moments in the middle.
Annette is a movie that demands the audience’s attention to a degree some people might not enjoy. It’s a film that I find I like more on reflection than when I first watched it, and that has been true about some of the pictures that have become my favorites of all-time. Henry is a challenging character to make your central figure as he is undoubtedly the villain of the movie, full of self-loathing and lashing out at people around him. The script never presents him as someone to be admired. Even as a comedian, he cannot answer the question as to why he goes out on stage and does this. He seems angry, but at who or what, it’s not entirely clear. Ann appears to be a saintly cure to Henry’s ills, but it doesn’t work. They sing a repetitive song, “We Love Each Other So Much,” which is meant to grate the audience. It’s the same thing uttered and over with little to no passion in how the words are delivered. The film is also broken into sections with entertainment tabloid television-style segments updating fans on the lives of these celebrities. By making the audience aware of the story’s artifice from the opening scene, these scenes are also a means to ask questions about how we’re told stories of “important” people who are just as, if not more, broken than we are.
Annette will never be a film for everyone. But it is a pretty damn good one, certainly not perfect but so unique in the elements that make it & certainly made by people who are passionate artists. Leos Carax is a filmmaker who has always found music to be a vital element in his work, and this feels like a culmination of that drive. Sparks also get to achieve a life-long dream, and I think they have given us the best rock opera we’ve seen in a long, long time.