Leos Carax films are the epitome of that classic equation wherein you can greatly respect the author’s work and still not understand if it’s something inherently likable or even accurately appraisable under the strict, linear terms of a regular review. Do I like Annette? Do I like Holy Motors (2012)? Does it even matter if the films do not properly align under a more austere rubric? Either way, they must be seen. And the film will not review itself. So may we start?
The band Sparks have always wanted to make a film with a French director. As outlined in the excellent Edgar Wright documentary about Sparks from earlier this year, the tradition of French film runs in their blood. They cut their teeth on the works of Jean-Luc Godard. So many of their songs express the imagery of a typical French New Wave film. Their lone protagonists wander through distinctly European settings frozen in time. They write each song with expansive cinematic intention. The songs play as succinct stories and have characters, themes, and imply visual motifs. Famously they were once paired off with master French filmmaker Jacques Tati to make a new entry in his celebrated Hulot catalogue. That’s a whole 47 years ago; Sparks have been around as a band for 50. That many years later, they have found an ideal vessel for their songwriting.
Leos Carax. The unknowable auteur. The director who goes away for a decade and returns, as though nothing has happened, with a singular musical that has nothing and everything in common with his past work. That guy. That enigma of modern cinema. Working with the band that never left and, through their own sheer will and endless spring of creatively, have also singularly reinvented themselves for half a century. What does this creative marriage of such distinct and disparate minds entail? Even with a screenplay written by Ron and Russel Mael (the Sparks brothers) the film is only readable as a Leos Carax films. Even with it being his first English language film, perhaps thanks to his superb creative partners, nothing at all is lost in translation. It is also the most French English language film. All of its nuances are distinctly of its country of origin.
While not sung-through, all of Annette’s language is devised for the purpose of poetic expression or stagey song-craft. Annette is a rock opera, in every sense of those words. It earns its opera. Leos Carax earns his perspective. His characters, Ann and Henry, earn their moments in the story. His actors, Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver, embody these characters with such bravado, with so little inhibition, that we cannot help but to buy into their elaborate performances.
Whatever the film is, and that seems far less certain, the Sparks soundtrack is the band’s chef-d’œuvre. It’s a full-bodied musical accomplishment, that spans the breadth of the duo’s superb songwriting. Cotillard and Driver are quixotic voices when the band doesn’t do the singing themselves. Perhaps it makes the most sense to separate the works and only then bring them back together. Annette was originally conceived as a standalone album that went unreleased. When the elder boys met Leos Carax, they found someone of equal restless innovation who might bring their operatic tragedy to screen. The music of it all is bracingly innovative still. It works on its own merits. The rest of the film, as a visual accompaniment, is worthwhile, but is not a visual equal to the intrinsic power of the music.
Annette follows the story of a famed opera singer and a stand-up comedian who are having their first child. The threads here are conveyed through abstractions. Cotillard projects her struggle with operatic resonance, her voice echoes and carries. Driver affects a gravely lower register and details his own frustrations through his stand-up comedy. The kind of comedy that is anti-comedy and asks us why we’re laughing at suffering. It’s all very deconstructive. They love each other so much and have their baby, Annette, who is born with a greater destiny than either of them can know. Their baby is also a grotesque doll-like creature, akin to the underrated body horror episode, Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2012, underrated film with ideas that I wish existed outside the franchise, and now they do). Compared to the progressive energy of the musical presentation, the threading here cannot help but feel stilted. The film does not operate as a cohesive whole. It’s a stunning visualization of an album, but the text of the movie itself doesn’t always live up to the high standard it sets.
Leos Carax employs a smart sense of colorimetry. The characters are defined by their colors. Cotillard’s Ann is surrounded by pregnant reds and florid warm colors. Driver’s Henry is presented with verdant greens. At first his greens imply life and virility. The coloring grows darker with the story. A later character played by Simon Helberg is color coded with black hues and suddenly, the rest of the colors also darken. There is a great vocabulary for visual representation happening in Annette. It is a beautiful looking film, start to finish. The set pieces, stages, and actions are lively and full of life.
This is also a film defined by its own obscurity. It’s relatively hard to draw parallels to other musicals. Annette is pretty singular among them. Sometimes it moves with perfect fluidity. Just as often, it’s stubborn and halting. It prioritizes the interests of its authors over keeping the center of its story moving. As good as it all looks, there is a critical distance between what the movie shows and what it allows the audience to feel about it all. It’s a film of ups and downs, where the heights are unreal, but the actions in-between do not always drive the film forward with a true purpose.
There’s nothing else like Annette. It’s best linked to a long lineage of French artists working far outside the regular system of making movies. It will be the only movie of its kind this year. It will be the second movie this year that acts as a perfect introduction to Sparks. For the sake of the soundtrack, Annette is frankly unmissable. While the audio-visual layers do not always meet in perfect agreement, the film ascends easy categorization. It’s a distinctly different kind of cinema. Like Holy Motors before it, Annette insists that Leos Carax is one of a kind. Only one director could make Annette this way. Let’s hope it isn’t another decade until his next singular work.