Riding high after the recent release of director Edgar Wright’s documentary about them (The Sparks Brothers), siblings Ron and Russell Mael have teamed up with director Leos Carax (Holy Motors) for the rock opera Annette, perhaps the weirdest rock opera put to film since Ken Russell’s adaptation of The Who’s Tommy.
The Sparks brothers provide the music and story, which involves Henry (Adam Driver), a controversial standup comedian, and his singer-actress wife, Ann (Marion Cotillard). The two are very much in love—but Henry is perhaps a little too driven for both of their sakes.
After a rousing start, during which Driver and Cotillard break the fourth wall with the Sparks brothers in tow, they settle in for the roller coaster (and long) story of the couple’s wrestle with fame and the eventual birth of their child, Annette. Driver gets to show off his comedic talents, as Henry performs his popular show—in a bathrobe—before crowded, rowdy audiences. Anybody who has seen Driver’s hosting stints on Saturday Night Live knows that he can bring the funny. The comedy here is a little more twisted and understated than an SNL sketch, but Driver’s solid timing is very much on display.
Both Driver and Cotillard do their own singing, and while Driver gets by fine with adequate warbling, Cotillard possesses some major-league pipes. In fact, the film is at its best when Cotillard is singing, whether onstage or in life situations, including stormy boats and racy bedrooms. She gets a nice chance to show off a talent that has heretofore been a bit hidden. She won an Oscar for portraying singer Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, but she lip-synched her way through that one.
As for the actual music: You won’t be tapping your feet, and you will have a hard time remembering any of the songs after seeing the film. While Cotillard reaches impressive singing heights, the songs feature the brand of talk-singing that occupies much of musical theater, and they’re rather bland on the melody side. This one is no Oklahoma. Heck, it’s not even Grease. Nonetheless, the singing is impressive in that it’s done live on set, much like it was for Les Misérables. In other words, Driver and Cotillard have to keep crooning, even when their characters are having sex or near drowning.
A tragic event takes the story into tabloid-controversy territory—but with little dramatic impact. The true strength of Annette is its visuals, especially regarding Carax’s choice to use an animatronic doll in place of a live baby for most of daughter Annette’s screen time. It’s an interesting choice, and the film literally soars when the doll is onscreen.
The movie clocks in at 139 minutes and changes in tone quite a few times before the end credits hit. Annette feels mostly like dark satire, but it does take on some headier stuff involving toxic masculinity, physical abuse and even murder. This isn’t a happy movie by any means.
Carax took the Best Director prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival for Annette, with the Maels also earning the festival’s composing award. I can understand how Annette stood out as a most novel cinematic experience, but it’s not in the same league as Hamilton or La La Land when it comes to recent movie musicals. It’s more of an adventurous curio than a truly memorable musical effort.
But there’s nothing wrong with being an adventurous curio. Annette offers a unique viewing experience, gives its stars some meaty material, and impresses visually. It’ll certainly stand out as one of 2021’s more different film experiences, and the film’s vibe will not be easily replicated.
If you’re looking to expand your cinematic horizons after watching standard summer releases like The Jungle Cruise and that Boss Baby sequel, Annette will definitely clear your movie palate.
Annette opens Friday, Aug. 6, at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City); and Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage).