A long-awaited collaboration between Leos Carax and Sparks asks audiences to surrender to its chaotically cool spell
One of my favorite sayings by my old Forms of Drama professor Gordon Farrell was that while regular films and stories operated on a traditional narrative language, musicals operated on the “language of dreams” — one where whirlwinds of sonic and visual splendor could demolish any sense of sense in favor of a more primal emotional truth. It’s why we can’t help but indulge ourselves in musicals despite their reality-bending, break-into-song artifice — because despite how detached from the world these gargantuan numbers may be, we long on some deeper level to join the company.
Annette, a long-gestating brainchild between pop maestros Sparks and mysterious madman director Leos Carax, is a musical that forces us into its throng of players and holds us hostage for every minute of its 140-minute runtime. With a range of influences spanning Sondheim, Jacques Demy, and the respective careers of each of the film’s three creators, Annette is a riveting reinvention of a movie musical.
Annette is locked in the perspective of shock comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), one whose star is fervently rocketing into orbit as his Ape of God standup show sells out to gleeful crowds night after night. The routine, somewhere on the spectrum between Andrew Dice Clay and Bo Burnham, forbids yet commands his audience to laugh to death–while Henry rejects yet craves his fans’ rapt attention. Forever conscious of his audience’s expectations and always drawing upon his life in the spotlight for material, Henry is both puppet and puppet master: his suffering means their joy.
For many celebrities, what’s next is a romance that dominates the headlines–in this case, Henry’s super-public affair with opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), and the impending birth of their New Born Girl. In stark contrast to Henry’s always-in-the-spotlight approach to life, Ann’s persona as an opera singer is one left solely on stage–where she sings tragically transcendent arias and dies an equally bombastic death night after night. But as their daughter Annette finally comes into the world with a gift that could lift the spirits of millions, Ann and Henry find that these lines between love, art, and performance have become irreversibly blurred–and that their language of dreams is headed down a path where only nightmares care to tread.
Like most of Leos Carax’s films–especially 2012’s Holy Motors–there is the rampant feeling that nothing is real but everything is true. Opening with an absolute banger of a fourth-wall-breaking number, Carax and Sparks (and Carax’s daughter!) set the film’s plot in motion alongside their principal actors on a never-ending journey towards the audience, listing out what may or may not happen based on the audience’s whims. It’s a sequence as magnetic as it is distancing, convincing you of the absolute sincerity of its creators based on how upfront they are about how artificial the whole film is. “But where’s the stage, you wonder,” the company refrains. “Is it outside or is it within?”
This ethos fuels much of Annette’s manic energy, bouncing between aural and visual styles like a round of cinematic musical chairs. The elements and form of a musical are there–but Carax and Sparks revel in the opportunity to use those building blocks to create something new. Much like its composer-screenwriter team’s 25 near-unclassifiable pop albums, Sparks’ songs for Annette either explode with lyrical complexity before fizzling out just as fast like a symphonic supernova, or ones that draw a rhythmic repetition out of a handful of words for several minutes, creating a trancelike effect that keep us rapt with attention. The scenes in which they’re set flit between traditional on-location settings, stages that mystifyingly expand into vast forests, or a boat deck on a soundstage with rear-projection of a raging storm as the actors are struck with torrents of water from unseen crew members. Throughout, Sparks pops up like gleefully judgmental gargoyles ready to strike down Henry or elevate him to new heights–whether as part of a throng of an angry mob or pilots for Henry’s private jet. There’s no division between the real world and the world they’ve created “just for you.” The corollary, though–there’s no line between the ordinary and the fantastic, so whatever dreams any of us can come up with for these characters is free to run amok for as long as we remain in the theater. The overall effect, like its opening number, can just as easily divide its audience as much as it can whip them up into a frenzy–it all depends on how willing you are to be a participant.
Its three main performers–Driver, Cotillard, and The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg–are Annette’s Rosetta Stone, grounding the film in a tangible emotional realism even as it skyrockets to even further experimental and alienating heights. They each sell the film with hip-swaying sincerity as they belt out numbers that range between bold and blunt, whether operatic or disco–treating each one as the earnest war of words they are at their core. Henry’s arc is frustratingly familiar as a self-obsessed man imprisoned by his own ego–yet his machismo is captivatingly disarmed by the moments of beauty he unexpectedly finds with Ann and their angelic daughter. Likewise, Cotillard turns what could easily be a thankless role of a woman trapped in an increasingly toxic marriage into an immensely reflexive one. As she’s plagued with nightmares of Henry’s possible #metoo-centric infidelity, Ann wonders if she’s inevitably destined for the same tragic fates as the characters she leaves behind on stage each night. Their relationship is unabashedly a toxic one, even if re-framed as operatically tragic, or having its origins in a self-perpetuating need for the approval of their audience–but Carax and Sparks also have no qualms about painting Henry as very much earning every single bit of vile comeuppance he earns on the journey of burning whatever goodwill he earns. Helberg, as Ann’s accompanist turned famous conductor, is a man who dreams of breaking out of his supporting role–like Henry, he’s a slave to the demands of his productions, yet fails to realize how his own fiery creative energy is channeled into each one. Each one plays their part to a T, creating a journey for Annette’s viewers that’s as fulfilling as its opening number promises.
There’s much to be found in Annette for even the most discerning or skeptical of moviegoers–and its biggest conceit will go unspoiled — though those who are expecting anything by the way of traditional storytelling should check those expectations at the door. It’s a film that urges its viewers to recognize the storytelling strings that pull them–and to follow their motions to unpredictably new and dreamlike destinations.
Annette opens in theaters on August 6th courtesy of Amazon Studios, with a debut on Amazon Prime Video on August 20th.