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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Annette (2021)

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

It’s been quite the year for brothers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks. An in-depth doccie on their discography was made by none other than Sparks super fan Edgar Wright and was met with rousing success critically and commercially. Watching The Sparks Brothers documentary, we barely got any idea of who these individuals actually are. This is most certainly intentional as the mystery of the enigmatic duo is retained and works as a rundown of their influence on your favourite bands and each album's impact on the Sparks themselves. It’s important to understand the context of their grander aspirations in regards to Annette. They’ve always been a cinematic band, and it is obvious when watching that documentary how they always wanted to be part of the film ecosystem as well, dating back to their college days of being obsessed with foreign arthouse films, most notably the French New Wave and even more most notably that of Jean-Luc Godard (this influence is easy to see as Cotillard's character's appearance seems to be modeled after New Wave icon Jean Seberg). After a failed collaboration with Tim Burton over a manga adaptation in the 80s that never really left the ground, the Sparks brothers finally get their chance to put their storytelling weirdness onto the big screen with French master of weird in Leos Carax, his first feature-length film in nine years since Holy Motors - a strange, otherworldy and magical piece of surrealist cinema that has Carax at his most Carax. Although it's exciting to see Sparks finally achieve their lifelong dream of making a rock opera for the screen, it's the director's return that excited me the most. Alas, Annette finds itself falling victim to its own ambitions that frustrates, confounds and dazzles all in equal measure.

Annette is A Star is Born if made by Carax and the Mael brothers. It’s not a hypothetical situation of a film that never existed, it’s something that has actually happened and came to life. It’s a dark and chaotic roadmap through the minds of Carax and the Maels that follows the toxic, turbulent relationship between controversial comedian Henry (Adam Driver) and successful opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard) as they welcome their exceptionally talented daughter Annette into the world, who is played by none other than a hugely impressive nightmare-inducing puppet. It's a film that is so very Leos Carax and so very Sparks as well - creating a strange melting pot of glam rock sensibilities and raw, surreal cocaine energy. However, Annette falls apart at the seams the deeper we fall down the rabbit hole as our characters deal with fame, creative compromise and its effect on the family dynamic.

A brief piece of narration is spoken over a black screen at the beginning of the film, warning for audiences to not make a peep. “If you need to fart, don’t fart”, telling them that no breathing is allowed, prompting the audience to take one last breath before we begin. We are clearly in for a ride, and with an introduction like that, you know Carax is going to Carax the shit out of this picture. If you’re at all familiar with his work, most notably the most Carax of all his films in Holy Motors, you know that there is no one like him. He is a true auteur that no one dares imitate as there is no one else to easily compare him to. He is often referred to as the French David Lynch due to their affinity with surrealism and the ultra weird, but even then they’re completely unique and visionary in their own right. It’s interesting to see where the Mael Brother’s script began and Carax’s contribution ended. And with all due respect to the influence Sparks have had on some of my favourite bands and artists, their music is without a doubt the weakest, most maddening aspect to the film’s downfall. Along with screenplay credits, the story is credited solely to the brothers, so I’d love to see the script and get a better feel as to what and how they, collectively with Carax, penned the script. Its chaotic, unpredictable structure and limited plot feels as if it were the half-thoughts and scribbles found on used serviettes from a fast-food spot at 3 am. Even though it seems completely untethered to an accessible, audience friendly aesthetic and structure, its sugar rush of the first 80-minutes is undeniably infectious and fascinating to watch. It’s impossible to look away as both a Carax fan and a curious Sparks investigator, trying to decipher where the plot is heading and trying to make sense of the strange barrage of musical numbers that seem to pile up during rush hour traffic. But after a certain point, the exhaustion of Annette begins to completely outstay its welcome, after all, we are still holding our breaths since the beginning and we are in desperate need to gasp for air.

At two-and-a-half hours in length, Annette is far too long. As mentioned before, it’s just a constant pile-up on the highway that never seems to end. It’s like the long single tracking shot in Godard’s Weekend of constant hooting and screaming that lasts for an eternity. It's exasperating. It's annoying - like bees in your fucking head. That’s what Annette begins to feel like, a gorgeous trainwreck on repeat with an endless list of similes you could use to describe both the frustrations and awe-inducing magic that Annette inflicts on its audience. It's not exactly a terrible film, but it’s almost completely intolerable to at least half of its audience, myself included. As a big Carax fan, watching a film that is so quintessentially him, I so badly wanted to throw in the towel at multiple points, and to be honest, Sparks is the biggest factor as to why I wanted to do that. Admittedly, I have never really “got” Sparks. I appreciate and totally understand their influence in the ecosystem of the pop music landscape, but I just never really liked their music. I came for the director, first and foremost, but was willing to give the Maels a chance to finally win me over 100%.

Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers had me rooting for their story and their artistic integrity of doing whatever they wanted and never selling out. It’s admirable from a band that has stayed consistent in evolving their artistry for over 50 years. So to be honest, I have no idea if this is the music Sparks fans were expecting and I have no idea if this tickles their fancy. But it's undoubtedly very much true to their brand of pushing and shapeshifting the boundaries they are constantly rewriting. Unfortunately, it just never worked to my subjective taste in music. To me, it’s just all so…bad. There is not one memorable song among the seamlessly endless stream of mid-thought songs. Even if you aren’t a fan of musicals, there is always a number from a film you tend to remember, or at least appreciate. Because of the odd structure of each number, Annette's soundtrack doesn’t allow us to really pin down a song worth remembering or going back to. If a scene that has Henry going down on Ann while singing doesn’t make you remember the song, then you know the formula just isn’t working. I often sing impromptu songs to my girlfriend and pets about things that we’re doing in an Eddie Vedder voice. I sing about the pan we are using, about a show we are watching, etc. They’re all objectively terrible and to be honest, they’re better than what is being rapidly blasted at us in Annette. They work in the same manner as my "songwriting" in that they’re bursts of vapid nothingness to fill the scene with anything other than dialogue. All due respect to the outstanding leads who give the performances every ounce of their abilities, it doesn’t help that no one appears to be trained singers. Pair that with the repetitive, unimaginative nothingness of the lyrics, the Maels effectively hurt Annette to an unlistenable degree for me, and if it weren’t for Carax’s wild vision and a rabid, magnetic Adam Driver, I’d beat the screen to a bloody pulp.

As mentioned before, Annette is a gorgeous trainwreck you cannot look away from, and thanks to the schizophrenic directing style of Leos Carax, it pushes Annette to truly weird territories through performance, editing techniques and finally, right down to the choice of a puppet playing Annette. The metaphorical implications of a puppet playing the talented daughter of two entertainers is easy to see. This is a creation seen as a mere piece of entertainment performing at the whim of the audience and its master. It's heavy stuff, and although this may be quite obvious and on the nose, it works and strengthens the otherwise “been there, done that” plot that Annette has. In the hands of any other director, Annette would’ve been something we have seen countless times before, but because it’s Leos Carax, it’s unlike anything we have seen, and credit to the Maels, have heard before. Despite having two A-listers in Driver and Cotillard, it remains a sweepingly original and fucking weird vision that doesn’t compromise whatsoever. As much as I hate the music and nonsensical garbage lyrics to Annette (in my opinion of course), it’s a perfect marriage of artists staying true to their vision and intention. It holds no punches in what it wants to be and say, therefore making it a success in what it sets out to achieve despite it being a film you will either love or hate.

The film finds itself hitting its best notes when it allows for Carax and Driver to let loose and tear the screen apart. Cotillard and Simon Helberg as The Conductor give outstanding, fully committed performances. But it is quite easily Adam Driver (who has the most screen time by far)'s take on the unapologetic Henry as being the driving force behind the film's brilliantly wild, disorderly conduct. The scenes of Henry performing on stage at his Ape of God shows is the perfect combination of Driver’s endlessly watchable, ferocious charisma and Carax’s wild, untapped, ravenous energy. It’s in these moments that make Annette undeniably entertaining, unpredictable and addictive in its ability to keep you glued to the screen, with Driver fully giving into the sensibilities of Leos Carax. Apart from truly incredible puppet-work for Annette, the film loses serious steam past the halfway point as it seems to have run out of cocaine, sugar and coffee. We're coming down at this point and oh God please can we stop their singing? Despite my annoyances with the pacing, I still can't quite decide if I love or hate Annette, as there are moments of sweeping brilliance that makes me realize just how much I love Leos Carax and Adam Driver. We need more of these two working together.

Annette is weird. It’s really fucking weird. And true to both Leos Carax and Sparks, it's most certainly an acquired taste. It is easily the strangest film I have seen this year. And to be perfectly frank, I still can’t quite fathom how I feel about it. It’s completely unwatchable and watchable all at once. It’s both a glorious spectacle as well as being absolute torture. It’s an experience I still can’t wrap my head around as it is unlike anything you will experience from an aural and visual point of view. I both recommend and condemn it all at once - a flawed anti-musical masterpiece that contradicts every feeling I have about it, setting it aside as a truly original piece of work if there ever was one.

Where you can watch it: Prime Video (Worldwide)

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