As far as coverage of the new Sparks musical Annette goes, a lot of attention has been focused on one scene, in which Adam Driver seems to sing a song directly into Marion Cotillard’s pudenda. This reviewer had no truck with that. The sex scene is beautifully shot, capturing these two pale-white lovers in an act of intimacy that is almost symbiotic. But did the song have to be called “We Love Each Other So Much?” One would hope to have picked up on that from context clues.
Annette’s most irritating foible is this, that it seems to be constantly stating its intentions. The film’s opening number (a terrific, fourth-wall-breaking stomper, of which more later) is called “So May We Start.” Later, the piano accompanist played by Simon Helberg, who wishes to become a composer, will sing a song in which he explains that… he is a piano accompanist who wishes to become a composer. Come on, Sparks! Show, don’t sing!
That tendency to spell things out rather too much is consistent with a musical that is brazenly unafraid to try things out and risk ridicule. Indeed, it cheerfully spills into ridicule with alarming frequency, in a way that is both endearing and, ultimately, frustrating, once the film has gone past the 90 minute mark.
This is a film in which Adam Driver plays a comedian called Henry McHenry, also known as the Ape of God; and where the central couple births a child that is played by a puppet, for no particular reason. The story plays out like a kind of operatic fever-dream almost from the start, a tone which seldom if ever lets up.
In the central role of this self-loathing and disturbed comedian who is obsessed with death, Driver gives a performance of utmost physicality. For instance, in one scene depicting one of Henry’s performances, the actor is kitted out only in underpants and a dressing gown, and throws himself about, contorting his body, sing-shouting and whirling his mic around. This certainly gives an impression of a twisted, heartbroken character folded in on his obsessions. But it also feels like a step too far for Driver. At times, his performance is eerily reminiscent of the wiry physicality of Denis Lavant, the actor who accompanied Annette’s director Leos Carax on all his previous films. This makes it feel like Driver is matching himself to a certain model of performance, rather than leading from his own interpretation of the role. In fact, the part, in general, isn’t a perfect match for Driver, who at times can be found singing songs about being ugly, and wondering aloud what women desire in him. Erm, is it maybe that you’re built like the Burj Khalifa?
The story, once it gets underway, finds Carax returning to many of the themes of his previous film, the deranged masterpiece Holy Motors. The performer, Henry McHenry, is in love with the ethereally beautiful opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). But from the beginning there is already a sense of foreboding in their relationship. In one admirable scene that veers queasily from discomfort to pleasure and back again, McHenry tickles Ann for slightly too long, after she has asked him to stop. He then stops, and starts again. We struggle to discern if she is enjoying this moment - she is laughing, after all - and the two characters are in love. Also, Defrasnoux’s job requires her to die on stage every night: McHenry is almost in mourning for her from the get-go. Soon, the couple is expecting a child. McHenry, in a panic dream, imagines the baby having the painted face of a clown, which Carax presents as a truly disturbing image. Finally, McHenry’s possessive physicality towards Ann seems destined to come to a head.
In the film’s second half, McHenry’s obsessive, domineering behavior steers him to control his child (who, quick reminder, is played by a puppet) as she embarks on a pop music career that culminates at the Superbowl half-time concert. That’s the level of reality on which Annette operates. At one point it seems to be making a rather wonky attempt to get into Me Too territory, but those considerations seem to belong to another world from the askew amour fou on display here.
Carax is clearly playing around with themes of abandonment and grief. The extraordinary passion that he conjures up, the roiling maelstrom of emotions (which is surely connected to the loss of his own wife, the actor Yekaterina Golubeva), is something to behold. McHenry seems to be a stand-in for him: a performer, a creative, who cannot let go. The tense relationship with a child seems to echo a disturbing scene in Holy Motors in which a father violently upbraids his daughter. What is real, in our relationships with others, and what is performance? The film explores all of this and more, in scenes of visual splendour. Extraordinarily grand theatrical backdrops of icy blue, framing Cotillard, give way to suffocatingly predominant greens of jealousy whenever Driver is around. The film is composed beautifully, with Carax’s trademark eye for mise-en-scene inspiring him to try out weird computer-glitch edits, and pictures leaping from mobile phones. Nothing is out of bounds here.
Yet, Annette’s pleasures begin to pall as the story continues on, with the Pinocchio-like child confronting her Gepetto father. It’s impossible to sustain such a level of melodramatic frenzy for this runtime. The music by Sparks, which started out pleasingly childlike and inventive, turns a little repetitive, adding to the demonstrative lyrics.
Oscar Wilde said it rather more succinctly when he wrote that “each man kills the thing he loves.” But you can’t fault Carax for attempting to flesh that idea out in a quite so crazed, so madly sincere way.
Originally reviewed following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Annette will hit theaters in the US in August.
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