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Annette (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

ANNETTE (2021)

Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell, Angèle, Kiko Mizuhara, Natalie Mendoza, Rila Fukushima, Laura Jansen, Rebecca Dyson-Smith, Nastaya Carax, Wim Opbrouck, Nino Porzio, Kanji Furutachi, Anaïs Dahl, Rebecca Sjowall, Kait Tenison, Michele Rocco Smeets, Leos Carax, Ron Mael and Russell Mael.

Screenplay by Ron Mael and Russell Mael and Leos Carax.

Directed by Leos Carax.

Distributed by Amazon Studios. 139 minutes. Rated R.

In the recent, highly acclaimed documentary The Sparks Brothers, the leaders of the quirky cult rock group Sparks – Russell and Ron Mael – discussed their long-standing fascination with film and their goal of making films. However, despite several false starts over a span of decades – including an aborted musical based on the Japanese manga Mal The Psychic Girl which at different points had Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola attached – none of their film projects have come to fruition. In fact, their movie career pretty much had consisted of playing the role of the band in 1970s Sensurround thriller Rollercoaster and the above-mentioned documentary on their lives.

Until now. Annette is another long-gestating passion project for the Mael brothers. After all these years, one of their film ideas has finally gotten made. Unfortunately, what Annette mostly shows us is that maybe it’s not a bad thing that it has taken so long for a Mael movie to be produced.

Even as a band, Sparks has been relentlessly quirky and cerebral – probably to the detriment of the group’s popularity. It is the reason that they have a rabid cult following rather than a huge audience base. However, even on the surreal scale of such previous albums as Kimono My House and Angst in My Pants, their movie Annette is off-the-charts weird.

Annette is a very, very dark musical about a singing baby. On a guess, I’d say a good 75% of the dialogue in the film is sung. It is directed in a massively surrealistic style by French filmmaker Leos Carax (Holy Motors, The Lovers on the Bridge).

It stars some very legitimate talents. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a performance artist and shock comic – though honestly, nothing he says on stage is particularly funny, so it’s mostly shocking for shock’s sake. He is in love with a beloved opera diva named Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), who is lauded as having “the voice of an angel.” The two are blissfully in love and catnip for the paparazzi. They have a baby, and all seems perfect.

Cracks start to show as her career takes off while his career starts to sputter – mostly because he finally goes too far on stage, and the audience recognizes what an evil dick he is.

This early section almost feels like what would happen if A Star Is Born was reimagined by Charlie Kaufman.

Then when she dies under somewhat suspicious circumstances, Ann’s voice somehow goes to her baby, a final taunt to her widower.

And did I mention that baby Annette was played by a puppet? Of course I didn’t, but strange as it seems, that was the case. If fairness, in one scene towards the end, Baby Annette – to paraphrase her puppet brethren Pinocchio – becomes a real girl. (Or at least she is played by a real girl actress.) But otherwise, the audience is watching this puppet baby and wondering why no one on screen is surprised by how plastic she looks or how spastic her movements are.

Nonetheless, Henry decides to exploit his young baby and take her on an international tour as Annette, the singing baby. With his career in the toilet, all he can really do is ride the coattails of his supernaturally talented toddler. Annette becomes an international phenomenon, but at what price to the baby’s mental and physical well-being? At different points the baby is flown on stage by drones, lifted high in the air on a wire and left standing precariously at the edge of a giant floating stage.

The biggest surprise about Annette – particularly for someone like me who has always been something of a fan of the Mael brothers’ day job – is how unmemorable most of the music is. I can’t imagine anyone regularly listening to the soundtrack and no one song really stood out as even particularly tuneful. This is a big problem for a movie which is mostly wall-to-wall music.

It also doesn’t help that the characters are so unrealistic and unlikable. I mean, honestly, Henry is essentially the lead character in Annette, and never for a second does the audience feel anything for him but revulsion. I get that was the point of the story, but it is hard to warm up to a movie with a megalomaniac like him at the center.

On the plus side, the movie does look stunning – with the exception of the puppet baby. Carax has a playful and adventurous visual eye, and his stamp is all over Annette. Even when things are unrealistic looking – like a scene where Henry and Ann are on a yacht in the middle of a bad storm and it’s obvious that they are just standing on a platform with a film clip of a storm playing behind them – it is done for effect, and it somehow works. For a film mostly made in America, it truly feels like a foreign film.

At the movie screening I saw for Annette, one of the other critics there acknowledged that he appreciated the fact that the movie took a big swing, even if it missed. That take may be a little bit overly generous to Annette, but one thing is for sure, it most certainly is a miss.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: August 5, 2021.


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