Annette review


On their 2017 song `When You’re A French Director` Sparks declared that “you’re an auteur as well. Actual French director Leos Carax featured on the track but their collaboration was to culminate in this 2021 film. With a story and songs penned by Ron and Russell Mael and Leos Carax behind the camera Annette is as odd as you might expect. The story is a familiar one, especially if you’ve seen A Star Is Born, yet presented with enough quirks to make it seem different. Playing with the boundaries between reality and fiction Carax extracts maximum visual impact from the tale while the Mael brothers’ songs narrate proceedings in a manner similar to Les Miserables. Yet what Annette ultimately lacks is the latter’s emotional heft. Many times I was impressed by this film but never once moved by it.


Confrontational comedian Henry McHenry meets dramatic opera singer Anne but as they fall for each other, the resulting bliss adversely affects his dark comedy while her career soars. Even the arrival of a child, Annette, doesn’t stop Henry spiralling into a creative black hole- “looking into the abyss” as he puts it.  An ill advised on stage rant about killing his wife causes Henry’s stock to sink and then during a sea voyage his drunken behaviour causes her to fall into the sea. Later she promises to haunt him through his daughter’s voice. Whereupon baby Annette develops a unique operatic voice that Henry soon uses to create vast income.

The film actually has a great opening with Sparks and their band in the studio performing what turns out to be the movie’s best new song `Now May We Start` during which the Maels and principial cast walk out into the street. It’s a simple scene that suggests a more nuanced approach will follow. Instead, once he launches into the story Leos Carax chooses a melodramatic path so much so that the scenes we see of Anne’s operas are less over the top than some of what follows! It looks amazing with an old fashioned colour palette of rich, dark colours and deliberate use of screen backdrops, notably during the ocean storm. There is little attempt at reality to the point where shots of baby Annette on YouTube looks out of place.

I think the main stumbling block for me was that Henry is such a nasty, self -absorbed character that you never like him. A plot like this should contrive a way to make the audience hope such a character gets away with terrible crimes. One of the best examples I’ve seen of that was in Crimes and Misdemeanours where by the end you are rooting for Martin Landau’s character despite what he’s done. Here you want Henry to get his comeuppance because he seems without redeeming features. Adam Driver gives a terrific, primal performance though with a complete commitment. It doesn’t help either that Marion Coitillard’s Anne is rather slightly sketched in comparison to the screen time Henry gets. We learn little of her inner thoughts. A third character, not gifted a name but called the Accompanist and later the Conductor who was Anne’s previous paramour is played by Simon Helberg who impresses in a role that shows the flip side of Henry’s toxic masculinity and ego.

The other issue is the realisation of baby Annette. Presented to us as a puppet, she looks like some horror movie creation and so scenes of her singing which should be magical just look weird. The puppetry is amazingly expressive, but the design makes her unsettling to watch. It is never clear – to me at least- whether this creative decision was to express Henry’s exploitation of the little girl or simply because a CGI baby would be too expensive (there’s a line in the opening song about the budget not being big enough) but it is detracting. At the end when Henry is in prison and she visits him Annette is suddenly a real girl and there is more emotional impact in that scene than the rest of the film.

To me it might have made more sense if she had taken on her puppet appearance only after Anne’s death as some sort of symbol of how Henry uses his own daughter like a puppet to make money. However as she appears this way from the start that’s not the answer. Maybe the fact that she becomes a real girl in the last scene shows that Henry has finally developed into seeing her as a real person?

Despite these issues, Annette is a fascinating piece of cinema to watch with use of light and transformations between scenes working very well. Sparks’ music ties things together perfectly as there is little spoken dialogue. The music is seamlessly woven through the film – in one scene the Conductor is expressing his inner feelings then excuses himself for some frantic conducting as the camera continues to circle him. In another Anne walks from the stage into a forest. Annette’s performances are rendered as magical contrasted with Henry’s unfiltered stage act. I was stuck by how operatic the whole thing is, reminiscent at times of The Phantom of the Opera and how a more interesting route might have been making Anne the more central of the two characters.

It is a challenging movie and the low box office suggests the conceit was just too out there to make it a bigger success. Perhaps cineastes will appreciate some puzzling choices more than most of us but even so it’s great that someone is making alternatives to superhero films these days. Even if we don’t fully understand them!

No comments:

Post a Comment