Director: Leos Carax
Screenwriter: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Leos Carax
Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
What do you get when you mix together the famously eccentric rock band Sparks with the famously eccentric filmmaker behind Bad Blood (1986) and Holy Motors (2012), Leos Carax? The answer is the 2021 musical Annette, a film that may prove surprising even to long-running fans of each of the artists involved.
Sparks’ legacy goes back 50 years, as documented in the impeccable 2021 Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers, with Carax’s own career in writing, film criticism and film direction lasting for over 40 years. Given the imprint each have left on their respective industries, and the extensive back catalogues accrued over close to a century of combined work, fans of each will likely have set expectations for how their 2021 collaboration Annette may play out, but this unique and modern take on the movie musical is unlike anything you might have imagined, a perfect example of just how unpredictable the work of these respected artists can be.
Annette instantly engages with the lead protagonists Ann (Marion Cotillard) and Henry (Adam Driver). Ann is a quiet and gentle upper class opera singer, while Henry is an aggressive, loud and tasteless stand up comedian. Their on-stage performances are cross-cut, the first in a series of motifs that exclaim their opposing character traits – Ann eats apples, Henry smokes; Ann often exercises, Henry does not.
The story that plays out around these characters is one of love, fame, deceit and exploitation. Yet, in spite of such an interesting story – heavily influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” – Carax isn’t tied to the narrative as a means of telling his story and uses very little to present the progression of events or character emotions, often refusing to show us the journey from point A to point B in favour of a more abrupt and less explanatory approach. It’s a storytelling technique that some may find disorientating, but in reading between the lines it becomes clear that there is much more to Annette than a simple beat-driven narrative.
The wealth that can be found within Annette is almost entirely presented through character, and how the film itself engages with each of them. Adam Driver’s Henry is objectively a bad person – he’s aggressive, obnoxious and loud – yet he is the focus of Annette, he’s the star turn. Carax offers interesting commentary through this very technique, positioning Henry as the dominant member of the duo and presenting Ann as receiving her most adulation when in his shadow, seeking to evaluate the sexist agenda that still accompanies fame and celebrity, and particularly how the public engages with it. Here, Henry is front and centre despite being the less talented, less watchable leading character, simply because men so often are, even when in partnership with a fantastic woman.
This becomes no more clear than when Annette chooses to follow Henry as his negative traits and actions become more and more severe, shunning Ann off to the side in an unmistakable criticism of our cultural desire to watch celebrities unravel. In effect, Carax is telling us that we allow terrible people to become famous through our engagement with them, and nothing more – people would much rather watch a horrible man fail than a kind woman succeed.
Simon Hellberg’s The Accompanist is similarly used to reinforce this perspective, his character journey from accompanist to conductor featuring only in the shadow of Henry’s unravelling, his love and adoration for Ann barely present in the film just as any concern or jealousy of this love is barely present within Henry.
It is a brilliant story to tell, and a relevant one in our modern day given our collective obsession with the self-destruction of famous people and the continued exposure given to abusers, thieves and failures.
Annette may prove polarising given its subject matter and the way it goes about presenting it, but as a Leos Carax and Sparks film it is as challenging, unique and eccentric as it should be – and it’s filled to the brim with excellent original songs too. Don’t go into Annette expecting Star Wars star Adam Driver to be doing his best The Greatest Showman impression and you’ll be delightfully rewarded with one of the most interesting musicals of recent years.