Before we step foot into the narrative of Annette, we meet the film’s creators. The movie has begun, but it hasn’t. Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks stand at the ready in the studio with their backing band. Director and co-writer Leos Carax sits at the control board on the other side of the glass, ushering us into his first feature since 2012’s groundbreaking Holy Motors with literal instructions: “Breathing will not be tolerated.”
It’s only a matter of time before the Mael brothers are performing and their song has spilled onto the street, where Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver, and Simon Helberg lead what seems like a portion of the crew while singing “May We Now Start” one hundred different ways. Over the course of the introductory tune, which is galvanizing in its pace but even more so in the way it corrals us into the story, the metatext grows. They sing about the budget, themes, significant spoilers (is it a spoiler if the film spoils it for you in the meta prologue?), et al.
It’s hard to say how the song developed, but that’s the case with most of this rock-opera musical’s numbers, which are delightful in their comedy as much as in their melodrama. They have a stream-of-consciousness quality to them that keeps us on our toes. Some songs are more like jingles, jutting in for twenty seconds and never returning. Others are elaborate, operatic productions that go on for several minutes repeating the same six words over and over. And some songs just hover in the background while people are talking or screaming or laughing, and they never take center stage. But they’re all undoubtedly Sparks songs — clever, critical, creative, and catchy.
When we finally enter the narrative of Annette, which was also conceived and co-scripted by the Mael brothers, we find ourselves in a recognizable Carax film setting: a limo. Ann (Cotillard) looks concerned as she peers out the window, a flurry of fantastic red and orange lights coloring her face with anxiety. She is a singer, a performer, a star. The Conductor (Helberg) is her nightly on-stage accompanist, a lonely man who dreams of being a composer. Soon, we meet her motorcycle-driving husband, Henry McHenry (Driver).
Henry is an avant-garde stand-up comedian troll who sprays his inner monologue at the audience as if he’s improvising, yet everything is meticulously cued and choreographed, a la Bo Burnham, and dark, a la Neil Hamburger. He’s harsh but beloved, and his shows are strangely interactive. We never really know if those in attendance are superfans who know all the cues like you’d know the words to your favorite song, or if this is just the strange, inexplicable world of Sparks-Carax, where audiences shout questions in unison at the stage with all the clarity and distinction of a well-rehearsed role.
Cotillard and Driver are phenomenal as Annette‘s melodramatic leads. Ann and Henry are a Brangelina of sorts in the pop culture of the film’s world, the paparazzi magnetized to their every move. And they love each other… so much. Enough, in fact, to sing a very long and lovely song about their affection for one another called “We Love Each Other So Much,” which takes us from the bedroom to the woods to a dark highway on a motorcycle. And, in the process, sets the stage for Ann and Henry’s relationship, delivers inane laughs, and foreshadows equal parts irony and tragedy.
That number also sets the stage for the titular child, although there’s little to say about Annette. You’d think there would be a lot to say about a baby that comes out of the womb as a marionette doll with the fully trained singing voice of her mother. Alas, Annette being so insignificant to the film’s story in the grand scheme of things is disappointing.
The character has her moments, but not as much as Ann and Ann not as much as Henry. Cotillard and Driver deliver equally magnificent performances, but this movie is most concerned with the ever-toxifying Henry McHenry. It’s about the ruthless self-loathing of men — the kind that can fester in one’s mind long enough to become a sick sense of confidence and self-exuberance — death, and futility.
Annette is far from a perfect film, but beware claims of “self-indulgence.” Some will use it to criticize, but it should be used to compliment. Suggesting self-indulgence as a critique means recognizing the opposite: lack thereof. Who wants a Sparks-Carax project that embraces uncharacteristic subtlety? These are artists known for their boundless creativity, indeed for their “self-indulgence.”
From the jump, Annette leans into that distinctly Sparksian tendency toward repetition and comic self-awareness, just like it leans into Caraxian absurdity and constant stylistic innovation. But over the course of one hundred and forty minutes (and, yes, it feels like it), it can leave one feeling more fatigued. However, Annette as a whole never feels tired. Even when the emotion is hard to latch onto, the songs and visuals are there. If there’s one critique that can’t be leveraged against Annette, it’s a lack of creativity.
Annette is the first time a Sparks film project has come to fruition, which is a bigger deal than it seems. The two went on a wild, ultimately devastating six-year journey with Tim Burton before Burton hung them out to dry. And before that, there was a less drawn-out but still diminishing blow that came with the collapse of their Jacques Tati collaboration. Longtime Sparks fans (or recent converts who just saw Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers) will know the satisfaction of finally seeing the Mael brothers’ work on screen. Carax gave it a Sparks-worthy treatment, employing a stunning visual language full of colors, explosive ideas, incredible compositions, and dynamic camera work. All in all, Annette is a bright return for both parties.
Annette opens theatrically in limited release on August 6th before making its streaming debut on Amazon Prime Video on August 20th.