Thursday, August 5, 2021

The flawed but interesting Annette has ambition to spare (SPOILERS)


Annette begins by letting you know exactly what kind of movie it is. Ron Mael and Russell Mael of the band Sparks begin singing the tune So May We Start, a self-referential ditty that foretells what's to come in its bonkers plot with lyrics like "A tale of songs and fury/with no tabboo/we'll sing and die for you/all in minor key." Initially beginning with just Sparks and some backup singers, the main cast members (Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg) gradually join in as the singing moves outside. All told in an extended single-take, it's a visually evocative set piece peppered with lyrics both amusing ("So ladies and gents/shut up and sit") and toe-tapping. Through this bravura opening, Annette prepares you for something unusual and fascinating.

From there, we get to meet some of the people who just sang for us. Driver is playing Henry McHenry, a stand-up comic with the glib stage persona of Steven Wright mixed in with some Bo Burnham. McHenry is in love with Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer who's now carrying the duo's child. Everything seems great in the lives of these two celebrities, but darkness is bubbling under the surface from McHenry. After the birth of their daughter Annette, all of that barely-concealed torment begins to bubble to the surface just as it turns out their offspring has an incredible musical gift. This discovery will trigger McHenry's desire to treat the people around him like objects and upend his life forever.

If you've seen the documentary The Sparks Brothers or been exposed to any of director Leos Carax's prior movies, you know that Annette is going to be an unabashedly strange creation. Indeed, decision to present the character Annette as a wooden puppet who looks like Chucky crossed with a Gelfling as realized by Rankin-Bass lives up to those expectations. And yet, I, surprisingly, wanted it to get a little weirder. Some of the plot developments, namely the sudden demise of Ann, felt too familiar for a movie leaning so hard on its own eccentricities to carry the day. The spirit is willing to get weird in Annette, but its derivative narrative hiccups are weak. 

Taking the film into a more abstract direction could've also helped mitigate the problem of Henry McHenry being a bit too much as a character we have to spend 144 minutes with. Driver's great in the role and the film is decidedly not painting him as sympathetic. However, there are already so many toxic dudes in the real world leveraging their show business cred to hurt women. You really have to deliver an outstanding narrative to justify centering a whole 2.5-hour long film around this kind of figure and Annette can't quite get there. There was never quite enough depth or even just memorably odd imagery to distract my mind from wondering why this plot wasn't centered on the perspectives of either Annette or Ann.

But while Annette does have its struggles keeping its story going for its elongated runtime, it's also got moments that truly shine. A scene where The Conductor (Simon Helberg) sings to the viewer about his own suspicions over Ann's demise while conducting an orchestra, all captured in a spinning 360-degree shot, is just terrific. Helberg's performance conveys such raw emotion, the didactic lyrics feel appropriate for his psychological headspace, and the camerawork enhances the ambiance in this scene rather than feeling like surface-level visual trickery. Really, most of the music in Annette is splendid, and Carax's commitment to depicting characters crooning while doing mundane things (like sitting on the toilet or having sex) is one of the film's highlights.

This approach to the singing certainly makes Annette an unorthodox musical and this level of recurring bravura had me yearning that the movie as a whole clicked more for me. But the good parts of Annette will stick around in my mind for a good long while to come, particularly Helberg's performance, which shockingly rises to the top of a cast that includes Adam Driver. Way to go Howard! Plus, Annette reminded me how cool it is that a band as distinctive as Sparks is getting a late-career renaissance and, if nothing else, this movie delivered that memorable So May We Start musical number. Many musicals can't even deliver one notable tune, let alone one as good as that, that's certainly a major point in favor of the flawed but interesting Annette.

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