Ideally I’d be writing this review ten to 15 years from now, or maybe even longer—so unsure am I as to whether Annette is a minor masterpiece in the present moment or something even greater that belongs to the ages and which we can’t fully comprehend in the here and now.
The latter sentiment would be consistent with the work of the film’s auteurs: director and cowriter Leos Carax (Mauvais Sang, Pola X, Holy Motors), whose oeuvre is demarcated by an eminently personal and highly cerebral sensibility; and cowriters and composers Ron and Russell Mael, who comprise the should-be-legendary band Sparks. Carax, a veritable enfant terrible who started off writing criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma before directing his first feature, Boy Meets Girl (1984), while still in his early 20s, thrives in the realm of the misunderstood; to be fair, though, most of his films have received some degree of critical and commercial success.
The Mael brothers, for their part, have been ahead of their time so frequently in the five decades they’ve been performing that it’s no surprise the duo let loose onto the world this madcap rock operetta. The project was born out of the Maels’ career-long desire to make a movie, which had fallen through—and with such luminaries as Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, no less—several times before. The brothers reportedly wrote the music for Annette almost nine years ago and only after a chance meeting with Carax at the Cannes Film Festival were they able to bring the project to fruition as an actual film, versus a concept album as in the case of their 2009 venture The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.
Their musical Annette, a delirious combination of imagination and (I’m sure) frustration, begins with an indelible clarion call befitting the pair. Carax himself, along with his daughter, appears in the control booth of a recording studio, the metaphor here obvious: he’s the director of this amply concepted fever dream writ large. Ron and Russell sit behind the glass, and a particularly catchy song begins. “So may we start?” it asks, as the brothers stand up, walk out of the studio, and into the street, joined by Carax and, later, the film’s stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg. (If someone had told me that a cast member from The Big Bang Theory would be in a Leos Carax film, well . . . this would be the year for such absurdity.) Leave it to Sparks to be so gracious in asking if they may delight us with their singular brand of unequivocal supplications.
After the song ends, the actors assume their roles and the story begins. Driver, appropriately bizarre and intense—and a spiritual stand-in, it would seem, for Carax regular Denis Lavant—plays a Brechtian comedian-provocateur called Henry McHenry; Cotillard a superlative opera soprano named Ann Defrasnoux. The two fall in love, and Carax illuminates their romantic trajectory with sequences of the couple singing and making love. The repeated, sung refrain of, “We love each other so much” (the film is mostly sung, with very little straightforward dialogue) establishes that trifling, almost designative view of love respective to the high arts and cheesy pop music; the combination of these two forms typifies the relationship between Carax and the band, exhibiting the radical candor of maudlin pop choruses and certain French New Wave films (and those inspired by them) alike.
Ann gives birth to a daughter, Annette, who’s portrayed by a creepy puppet that resembles a monkey. (I’d say she also resembles Lavant, though I’m not sure if that’s intentional; another potential coincidence is the film’s overuse of the color green, a motif in Carax’s last feature, Holy Motors.) Things go downhill for the couple afterward, as fatherhood and a decline in popularity catapult Henry into a distemper of operatic proportions. In appropriately melodramatic fashion, the drama reaches its apogee at sea aboard the couple’s yacht, with a swell that pulls Ann overboard. Her ultimate demise, a predicament inherent to tragedies of the stage, had been foreshadowed from the beginning; she vows to haunt Henry through their daughter, which happens by way of the infant Annette bursting into song whenever a light shines on her.
Henry teams up with a conductor (credited simply as The Conductor and played by Helberg) who’d previously accompanied Ann at the opera, and the two take the magical puppet songbird on a world tour. Driven by his rage and jealousy, Henry commits a final, tragic act that condemns him in the eyes of the law and his child. I’m unsure if spoilers matter when discussing an avant-garde rock opera, but to leave a little more to surprise, I’ll refrain from revealing the final aberration. Suffice it to say, this tale of doomed lovers concludes in a way befitting the form and the filmmakers.
But what to make of it all? What message do Carax and the Brothers Mael hope to convey, if any? One need only watch one of Carax’s previous films or listen to a Sparks album to know that these are artists who revel in the act of creating. Carax has long been driven by a fervor to put images onto the screen with little desire for the audience to interpret them (though they’re often autobiographical in nature), much less interpret them himself, while the Mael brothers excel in making pop music that’s singular in its polished simplicity (consider the chorus of their song “Balls”: “Balls. All you need are / Balls. To succeed are / Balls. All you need are / Balls.”)—the collaborators find common ground in their uncompromising vision.
Perhaps some day soon it will click for me, and Annette will reveal itself with all its mysteries solved. There are many possible explications of what it’s about, from the complexities of love to the deficiencies of fame to the existential deadlock that is parenthood—dilemmas that Carax has explored before (and, to some degree, experienced himself). And as is typical of the band, it’s hard to say what Sparks hopes for the audience to get out of this other than just getting it out there, to be enjoyed and interpreted as viewers see fit. More likely the truth will evade me, even if my appreciation for the film evolves over the years. Until then, I’ll have a killer soundtrack to listen to. v