Pop duo Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks are having quite the year. You’d be forgiven for not having heard of them at the start of the year (despite having 25 albums to date) but after the brothers received their own documentary, directed by none other than Edgar Wright himself and now having written the story for Annette as well as all the music for the film, the Mael brothers are two people that should very much be on your radar by now.
Directed and co-written by Leos Carax (Holy Motors), Annette is a totally bonkers musical and there’s every chance that you just won’t be able to get on board with the film’s craziness, but if you do it’s an absolutely breathtaking operatic journey. The film follows stand-up comedian Henry McHenry, played remarkably by Adam Driver, and his wife (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer and their marriage and how it changes when their first child, named Annette, is born.
Right from the start Carax and the Mael brothers have your attention. The film opens by telling you to hold your breath and any laughter you might have until the very end. This opening instruction is then followed by Sparks and Leos Carax themselves in a recording studio preparing to record a song “So May We Start”. Much like other recent hit musicals such as La La Land and In the Heights, Annette opens with a grand musical number to thrust you into the musical world of the film. But unlike the more mainstream mentioned above, Annette’s opening number is completely different and sets you up for the weird, yet wonderful, operatic trip that you’re about to embark on for the next two hours and twenty minutes.
The opening number sees Carax and the Maels walk out of the recording studio and down the street singing as they’re joined by the rest of the film’s cast in this gorgeous long tracking shot that’s essentially just asking the audience if they can start the film. “So May We Start” is a bizarre opening to a bizarre film but it sets the tone for what’s to follow.
Annette is eccentric and unconventional, meaning it’s the perfect fit for an original soundtrack by Sparks; it perfectly matches their peculiar and unusual style. The whole film has a beautiful rhythmic and musical nature to it thanks to Sparks. And whilst the film does have a few conventional songs in, a lot of the music is more just people chanting certain words and phrases over and over again in a rhythm or ‘talk-singing’. As a result, Annette becomes a musical unlike any other. You’ll struggle to find any other film that involves Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard singing a song called “We Love Each Other So Much” whilst having sex. Or a musical birth scene. But of course Annette is unconventional and fulfils that desire that you probably never had for a musical sex scene.
The first half of the film seems a bit slow going and I did initially struggle to get on board with it. There are prolonged scenes of Adam Driver performing his comedy routines (that aren’t very funny) on stage in his dressing gown. And there’s a scene in which six women have come forward, all with a similar story about Henry’s abusive nature. At first these scenes aren’t really focussed on and they seem a bit irrelevant, but as the film goes on, it gets much stronger as the narrative goes somewhere much more exciting and Henry’s character becomes much more compelling, making all the previous character development very necessary. Without going into spoiler territory, the film really picks up about halfway through the film and rather than somewhat aimlessly jumping about between Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, it finds its footing and knows where it wants to go.
The second half brings much more excitement not only in the plot but in practically every other way. The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg gets a bigger role including a wonderful scene of him conducting where the camera does full 360 degrees spins around him, creating a really spectacular and invigorating scene. The music gets better, in particular, the film’s final scene is just incredible leaving you completely breathless.
Cannes 2021 opener Annette is undoubtedly a weird film. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can get on board with it and if you can let Carax and Sparks whisk your imagination away on this incredible journey, you’ll be rewarded. Driver, Cotillard and Helberg help bring their wild creation to life in the most spectacular of ways making this a musical unlike any other.