Leos Carax’s latest film Annette announces itself as something unique from the very beginning. Opening with Carax and his daughter Nastya sitting in a recording studio, Ron and Russel Mael, the siblings who are better known as the group Sparks, begin singing the jaunty song “So May We Start?” Transitioning into a wonderful tracking shot that takes us out of the studio and into the colourful streets of Los Angels, actors Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg eventually join the fold. As they all sing the lyrics of the song, which plays like a cheeky theatre announcement guiding you through what to expect, one is astutely aware that this will not be your standard tale of love and betrayal.
The song itself also serves as a good primer for those, such as myself, who are unfamiliar with the Sparks brand of avant-garde pop rock. While there are several great numbers throughout, the constant transitions in tones and styles that occur within several songs will not be for everyone. Even by musical standards some of the lines in the film, which are “sung in minor key”, do not always fit in a smoothly as one might expect.
Annette may swim in the familiar pool of complicated love, a hallmark of the director’s work, Carax has no intentions of giving audiences a traditional musical. Instead, he and Sparks weave a winding tale that revolves around the turbulent love affair between stand-up comedian Henry (Driver) and opera singer Ann (Cotillard). Seemingly opposites on paper, he a brash take no prisoners comic and her a sensitive singer, their whirlwind romance is founded on a deep love for each other. The kind of bond that has them singing “We Love Each Other So Much” as they stroll in the woods, ride on Henry’s motorcycle, and make love.
The glow of love begins to dim when the couple’s careers head in vastly different directions and Ann gives birth to their daughter Annette, a child who has a special gift. Making matters worst are the allegations from Henry’s past that have surfaced and become tabloid fodder.
Using a TMZ style celebrity news program to fill in key developments in Henry and Ann’s life, Annette takes many gleeful jabs at both Hollywood culture and society’s obsession with fame. Touching on everything from the exploitation of children in entertainment to the #MeToo era, Carax is not short on things to say. Unfortunately, neither the director nor Sparks seem interested in adding any meaningful commentary to the various points they raise. This is most evident when viewing the musical’s approach to toxic masculinity.
Henry’s masculinity is portrayed as something primal. Known as “The Ape of God” on stage, he prepares for each show by shadow boxing as if he is a prize fighter about to defend the title. Everything about him screams aggression, he is the type of guy who boasts about being a chick magnet and makes a simple tickle fight feel violent. Henry’s manliness feels especially poisonous when juxtaposed with Ann’s musical accompanist-turned-conductor (Helberg). However, Annette is never quite sure what to do with all the bile it unearths.
On one hand it uses the toxicity to emphasize how audiences are willing to ignore bad behavior as long as their favourite star continues to entertain them. On the other hand, the film struggles to humanize Henry as a tortured lonely soul in the face of the terrible things he does.
Fortunately for the film, Driver delivers a sensational and complex performance as Henry, which allows the audience to remain invested in the character even in the film’s many uneven moments. Though Annette walks across a wobbly tightrope of ideas, the combination of Driver’s performance and Carax’s visuals make for a fascinating experience. Each musical set piece, whether on a yacht in a storm or in a police van where the hands hit the windows in a fashion reminiscent of a zombie film, excites the senses.
While the visual flare cannot quell the frustrating nature of the film’s bumpy beats, there is a playfulness to the overall production that is infectious. Take for example the sequence where The Conductor is relaying key pieces of information directly to the viewer but pauses to lead his orchestra in a piece of music that directly heightens the drama of the words he has just uttered. Annette is riddled with wonderful moments like this. Add in Carax’s brand of dark humour, which frequently pushes the line between edgy and offensive, there is plenty of enjoyable things to unpack in the film.
Annette’s mixed bag of ideas and songs does not always hit a high note, but one is consistently interested in its tune.