Director: Leos Carax
Writers: Ron Mael, Russell Mael
Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Duration: 141 mins
BBFC Certification: 15
Leos Carax may not make films all that often, but when he does you can be sure that they’ll be an event. Unpredictable, visually ravishing and dripping with bold surrealism, Carax’s style of cinema reached its critical zenith with 2012’s Holy Motors, a dazzling and bizarre cinematic odyssey that made him many new fans around the world, myself included, who eagerly awaited the director’s next filmic extravaganza.
How exciting it was to learn, then, that Carax, after experimenting and indulging in musical moments throughout his previous work, was planning on making a full blown musical for his next film, with a script, score and songs written by none other than cult art pop band Sparks (who certainly enjoyed a resurgence in 2021, not only writing the music for Annette but being the subject of Edgar Wright’s critically acclaimed documentary). Starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, Annette has won numerous plaudits on the festival circuit (including a best director award for Carax at Cannes) but the film seems to have divided critics far more than Holy Motors. With Annette now being released on Blu Ray via Mubi, audiences at home can now make up their own minds on Carax’s latest cinematic showcase.
Perhaps the critical division comes from the fact that Annette is a full blown musical, a genre that seems to be cinema’s version of Marmite. From the bravura opening shot, which in one take follows Sparks and the cast out of the studio and onto the street for a big musical number, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Annette has cast itself very much in the mould of the traditional MGM musical. In fact, this opening actually turns out to be a red herring.
Anyone expecting either a traditional ‘big’ musical or (considering the band who wrote the music) a rock opera à la Tommy or Rocky Horror will come away disappointed. Annette is far more alined with the work of Stephen Sondheim or Jacques Demy (especially The Umbrella’s of Cherbourg) where the songs and score are woven intricately into the narrative. Dialogue is mostly sung rather than spoken and the story is continuously allowed to flow as opposed to being paused every so often for extravagant musical numbers. People averse to traditional musicals might find this approach more natural and engaging…if they manage to get through the first half of the film, that is.
Annette’s story is a simple one. It focuses on the celebrity relationship between edgy, antagonistic comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and superstar opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). The first half of the film focuses on their relationship and their struggle in the limelight, whereas the second half focuses on their daughter Annette (performed not by a human but by a wooden puppet, which is actually far more successful and emotionally engaging that you might suspect).
It is this first half that finds Annette at its most indulgent. The chemistry between Driver and Cotillard is virtually non-existent, which makes it very hard to care about their relationship and the struggles they both encounter. This difficulty is then compounded by Carax deciding to fill the majority of the film’s first hour with actual ‘staged’ performances. We get to see Marion Cotillard’s Ann perform songs from an Opera, while we get not one but two extended turns from Driver’s comedian. Although peppered with stylistic flourishes to ensure that they are never too dry or boring, these are still filmed much like a One Night at the Apollo set. Combine that with the fact that Driver’s character feels self pitying and self indulgent, and the film’s first hour certainly feels like a struggle to get through, where Carax himself comes across either as a genius or as indulgent as his main character, depending on your point of view.
Yet Annette is worth sticking with. Get through that first difficult hour and the plot, which up till this point had been wading through sludge, suddenly takes a more dramatic turn. Annette begins to flourish, turning from something rather pretentious into a darker, more magical fable that recalls, at points, Tim Burton at his best.
The cast, though small, all perform superbly. Cotillard has the less showy role here; it is Driver who dominates the film and he does so brilliantly, combining fear, doubt and self loathing into a twisted whole that never manages to loose your empathy. Fully deploying the musical chops he exhibited in Inside Llewyn Davis and Marriage Story, this marks yet another dark and fascinating role for the actor (once again playing a largely unsympathetic character) that has helped to establish him as one of the most interesting mainstream stars working today. Both leads are brilliantly supported by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, whose musical dexterity is matched by a memorable and emotionally layered performance.
It may start slowly and with difficulty, but Annette is ultimately another triumph for Carax. As gloriously stylised and as visually ravishing as any of his other films, Annette’s narrative finds the director working at a more even, conventional keel. Despite that, it still stands out as a wonderfully idiosyncratic work, bursting with invention and surprise. The ending may come as a rather abrupt anti-climax, but that doesn’t dispel from the small moments of magic that came before, moments, like in all of Carax’s films, that continue to sparkle in the memory long after the credits have rolled.
Annette is being released on Blu Ray and DVD on the 10th January from Mubi. The picture quality on the Blu Ray is mostly fantastic, especially during brightly lit scenes and during close ups. The are some compression issues in darker scenes, however. The soundtrack is, as to be expected, fully rich and engaging. The only extra on the disc is a 16 minute interview with the Sparks Brothers, hosted by Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin. Although short, the interview is nevertheless engaging and full of interesting information. For a film such as this however, you wish some more extras could have been added.