2021 marks a Sparksonaissance. The pop-rock duo, who’ve refused to be specifically defined since the 60s, finds new audiences this year with two films directed by two auteurs who embrace their sound.
The decision to release Edgar Wright’s energetic, cliché-busting documentary The Sparks Brothers before Annette, Leos Carax’s new Sparks-written movie musical, is an inspired action plan. Wright reminds and educates audiences about this brilliant band, helmed by septuagenarian musicians Ron and Russell Mael, providing a historical context leading to Annette. And for those long-term Sparks fans, the latter film must be a pleasant sigh after failed attempts with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton.
Unfortunately, this burdens Annette with some undue hype. Anyone familiar with Carax’s arthouse-y back catalogue knows they’re strapped in for a dark and somnambulant drive. Although it's his English-language debut – blooming with Hollywood stars like Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg – he still unabashedly plunges into those weird worlds.
Marion Cotillard as respected opera soprano Ann Desfranoux. Photo: EPK/Amazon
Sparks’ sense of self-irony immediately slaps you in the face. The opening credits roll and someone with a microphone asks for your complete, breathless attention. Cut to Carax himself behind glass in a recording studio, in which the Maels perform the first musical number So May We Start?
The cast and the band walk out of the studio, singing through an LA street with a Brechtian awareness that this is, indeed, a film. It’s a riveting prologue, but the rest of the runtime rarely matches that opening ecstasy. Annette stretches over a laborious 130 minutes with few musical numbers that stand out, yet proceeds with stunning unpredictability. It's filled with stormy surrealism, dialogue that's mostly sung (even during cunnilingus), and a titular toddler made of wood.
Quite literally: Annette is, for the most part, a puppet – one that see-saws between Disney-like cuteness and horror-movie creepiness, sometimes resembling Chucky from Child’s Play. But contrarily, there’s a curious sadness under her wooden face.
Driver gives one of his all-time best performances as Henry McHenry, a provocative stand-up who clearly sees himself as the Rocky Balboa of comedy. He wears a green dressing-gown, hood up, watching himself punch the air before a performance. Meanwhile, Cotillard stars as Ann Desfranoux, a respected opera soprano and partner to Henry. The divisions between their high- and low-brow careers collapse under an extremely passionate romance.
However, you get the sense that everything’s not right. Maybe it’s the easily parodic song We Love Each Other So Much. Or Ann dreaming of a #MeToo scandal involving Henry. Or that when they conceive a child, the said Annette, she's a puppet who sings like an angel.
Adam Driver as provocative stand-up Henry McHenry. Photo: EPK/Amazon
Sparks and Carax decide the toxic male half of the relationship is of greater interest. Although Driver is apoplectically absorbing, Henry’s inner vulnerabilities and outer moral bankruptcy become overdone; recurrent to the edge of boredom. The more harmless, lovesick Accompanist (The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg) provides a soothing, beta-male balance. But there’s not nearly enough of him.
Carax always likes to strike the screen with an abundance of surprises, but the lack of consistent thrill in Annette mirrors his early lukewarm experiments. He succeeds most when imitating the surrealist film titan David Lynch, as seen in cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s isolated shallow focus and dark, infinite highways.
The phantasmagoric, almost fairytale visuals stick in the mind more than the music and the story, often drifting into the picturesque palettes of silent cinema. If only the characters themselves were as alluring.
Annette will be in cinemas from Friday 3 September. It's also available to stream on MUBI from Friday 26 November.
|What||Annette movie review|
03 Sep 21 – 03 Sep 22, IN CINEMAS
26 Nov 21 – 26 Nov 22, ON MUBI
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