Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard star in Leos Carax’s audacious rock opera about a baby with a very special gift.
When I was about 13, my grandmother took me to the opera for the first time. We went to see Carmen; I fell asleep fairly early on and only woke up when the flamenco dancing started. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience, and this began a pattern over the years whereby my grandma would take me to see all her favourite shows: Madame Butterfly, La bohème, La traviata. I was frequently baffled, often enraptured. The same goes for Leos Carax’s Annette.
Anyone familiar with the music of Ron and Russell Mael (better known as the genre-defying musical duo Sparks) knows they have little interest in what the Public At Large wants, or indeed likes. Their five decades in the business have produced a couple of hits, a radio musical about Ingmar Bergman, a supergroup with Franz Ferdinand and The Number One Song in Heaven to name just a few highlights. They are, ahem, something of an acquired taste, which makes them a perfect fit for Carax’s surrealist sensibilities, not to mention the envelope-pushing interests of Hollywood’s great hope, Adam Driver.
To reveal too much of Annette’s plot would be to spoil the surprise for viewers, but the story goes as so: Henry McHenry (Driver), motorcycle-riding bad boy stand-up comedian, is madly in love with Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a revered opera singer. Their whirlwind romance results in a marriage and a daughter, but Henry’s jealousy and inability to let love overrule his deep-seated self-loathing spells impending doom.
Annette has been described somewhat inaccurately as a musical; don’t go in expecting catchy songs and carefully choreographed dance routines. In true Sparks style, it’s an ambitious, audacious rock opera, complete with much-feted musical cunnilingus and repeat cameo appearances from Sparks themselves. It’s sprawling and self-indulgent and completely bizarre; the more distance I get from it, the more certain I am of its masterpiece status.
Despite the lack of memorable tunes, however, the intricate details and sheer scale of the production invites repeat viewings (meta opening number ‘So May We Start’ is sure to be a crowd favourite), and it’s intriguing to think how much Sparks and Carax care about their place in the great artistic tradition.
Driver’s performance is one of full-bodied enthusiasm and physicality, channelling the spirit of Denis Lavant in Carax’s 1991 film The Lovers on the Bridge. His gravelly voice and commanding screen presence are compelling enough to forgive the narrative transgressions (a strange nod to #MeToo probably should have stayed in the writer’s room).
Cotillard, meanwhile, proves the perfect foil as a woman betrayed by love in the classic operatic tradition. The role was initially meant for Rooney Mara and then Michelle Williams, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Ann with such a clear sense of tragic naivety.
In a departure from Carax’s previous work, Annette is set in Los Angeles; does this place the film in the realm of work about Hollywood’s cannibalistic tendencies? Is Henry McHenry based on any particular male comedian who profits off his self-loathing while conveniently never having to change his ways?
Annette won’t be for everyone. Sparks aren’t for everyone. Leos Carax isn’t for everyone. Opera isn’t for everyone. Yet it’s hard to argue against the ambition and originality of this outrageous love story. Although the film draws from the history of cinema and musicals and calls to mind all manner of other media, it manages to feel entirely unique – earnest and honest and just a little pretentious.
As a singular artistic vision about toxic, self-loathing men, bad parenting and the grotesque, all-consuming theatre of performance, Annette is a triumph. What a joy to live at the same time as artists who are willing to plunge themselves headfirst into the creative abyss and let us bear witness from the stands, fidgeting nervously as we long for an encore.
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Published 7 Jul 2021
French enfant terrible Leos Carax finally comes good with this sublime and surreal ode to acting, moviemaking, Paris and the whole damn thing.
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