What happens when you take Leos Carax’s poetic style and emotionally raw storytelling and mix it with Spark’s multi-layered and kind of esoteric pop songwriting? Annette, of course. Whether you are already familiar with both or you just got to know about Sparks thanks to Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers documentary, Annette is everything you’d imagine from a collaboration between Sparks and Carax, for better and worse. This is a film that is as overindulgent as it is earnest, but flaws and all, it is worth the wait.
It becomes clear Annette will be a divisive film from the moment Carax opens it via voice-over narration to instruct audiences to hold their breath for the entire runtime, before we see him, his daughter, Sparks, and the entire main cast walk out of a recording studio and into the streets of Los Angeles while singing a song about starting the show. The film follows Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a Bill Burr-style bad boy comedian who liked to shock audiences with cringe self-deprecating jokes about how much life sucks, and when that and the chorus that indicates the audience when to laugh don’t work, he just fakes a shooting that fake-kills him, which somehow always does the trick. He is also engaged to his polar opposite, the angelic and pure opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard, in a rather muted performance) who dies every night on the stage before taking a bow. Their love is as passionate as it is nonsensical, as the song Henry sings while going down on Ann eloquently explains. Soon, Ann is pregnant and invaded with rumors or dreams about Henry being cancelled for his aggressive machismo and rather violent tendencies.
This is how the titular Annette comes to the world, a literal puppet baby that’s creepy enough to join the great pantheon of creepy movie babies presided by American Sniper‘s CGI baby and Twilight: Breaking Dawn‘s monstrosity of a child. Annette is blessed (or cursed) with her mother’s magical adult singing voice, and soon finds herself being puppeteered by Henry, who takes managing her child’s prodigious talents as an opportunity to avoid dealing with the decline in his career. In some ways, Annette is A Star Is Born by way of last year’s Showbiz Kids, with a bit of Edgar Allan Poe sprinkled on top.
The result is emotionally raw and powerful, and it culminates in a heartbreaking final scene that could arguably be Adam Driver’s best acting ever. Carax takes his no-holds-barred examination of cinema in Holy Motors and expands it to examine the way the entertainment industry treats both aging performers and nascent talent. It makes sense, then, that Sparks wrote this particular story—as the musical duo took its 50+ years of experience in the music business, including the heartbreaks, the joys, the egos, the jealousy—and poured it into Henry’s and Annette’s stories. Puppet Annette may not have many facial expressions, but your heart will break for this child with no agency, who is being pulled to all sides by both of her parents, as well as the demanding public.
This movie carries the weight of not only it being Leos Carax’s first film in almost a decade, but also being Sparks’ musical cinematic debut after many failed attempts, and in that regard Annette is a triumph. The songs perfectly encapsulate the band’s sound, ranging from operatic to synth rock to everything in between, while the musical numbers are reminiscent of Sondheim or even Phantom of the Paradise. It is a testament to Annette that it works as well on film as it could on the stage, or even as a rock opera concept album a la Jesus Christ Superstar. Carax films many of the numbers, especially when involving Driver’s McHenry as if they were on a stage, using rear projection and even background voices from an unseen audience.
Sadly, this being such a big and personal project for everyone involved, Annette at times ends up being a bit overindulgent. For one, the film’s runtime is extended to its limits, and every arc and scene feels stretched out to the point where the transition to the next comes off a rushed, because you think they were just getting to the point of what came before.
Every film is a miracle, but Annette feels especially so. This is a deeply personal, emotionally raw, operatic, epic musical that can be off putting at times, but it’s so unrestrained and unapologetic about what it’s trying to do, you can’t help but sing along. So, may we start?
Annette premiered at Cannes Film Festival July 6.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.