Director: Leos Carax (France, Belgium, Germany, USA, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland). Year of Release: 2021
Music. The camera pulls out from Russell Mael. You may know him from Sparks. Near to him, there are the piano playing fingers of his brother Ron. The song has the title “May we Start?” and contains the following verse: “So close all the doors and let’s begin the show / The exits are clearly marked, thought you should know / The authors are here so let’s not show disdain / The authors are here and they’re a little vain / A little vain.”
Did you find that charming and pleasantly silly, or a little too pleased with itself? Think very hard about your answer, because there’s a lot of this to follow. This is a film from Leos Carax, who takes a lot of enjoyment from playing with the form of his films. It’s also written by the Mael brothers and contains a lot of their newly written songs. Let’s just say that it’s not for everyone.
Ann and Henry are an ill-matched couple. She’s an opera singer, everybody’s darling. He’s a snarling, cynical stand-up comic who’s schtick consists of provoking his audience. He has no jokes as such, just nihilist invective aimed at them, at himself, everywhere. Mark Kermode has compared him to Bill Hicks but that’s not quite right. Bill Hicks stood for something. Henry is more like the self-regarding persona Stewart Lee adopts, without the self-awareness or social comment.
Ann and Henry love each other so much – there is a song telling us just this. They are soon to marry. At the start of the film, they are both wildly successful, but Henry’s star is on the wane. After a performance where he does nothing more than relate the (fictional) story of how he killed his wife, first the women, then everyone in the audience, start shouting at him that he’s just not funny. It’s not that he was funny before, but suddenly the emperor has no clothes.
It is around this time that six women start to level MeToo allegations against Henry. Although I think the film is great, it seems to be better at being just a bit strange than at grappling with unpleasant realities. Adventures like this are woefully underwritten. After a song from the accusing women and a brief mention on the tabloid news channel that pops up now and again, we here no more about these charges. Nonetheless, our suspicions in Henry are aroused.
Ann has a baby – a puppet looking like a slightly more cute version of Chucky – which they call Annette. Annette inherits her mother’s singing voice, and after Ann’s tragic death, Henry sees a way of continuing to live in the way in which he’s been accustomed. Concerts are organised, and the scary puppet baby is hawked out to anyone who’ll pay to hear her sing.
Watching Annette made me yearn for the days of the Rock Opera. Why did people stop making them? Of course the plot is ridiculous, but it’s no more far-fetched than plotlines about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball star who leads a cult, or a plant which grows rapidly, as does its lust for human blood (possibly as an hommage to Little Shop of Horrors, there is a group of female singers who stand in the background of various scenes singing backing vocals).
I can’t think of anyone more suitable for providing the operatic parts of a Rock Opera than Sparks, whose overblown tunes are perfectly suited to the addition of an orchestra. And their lyrics – both knowing and silly – are perfectly suited to the mood of the film. Yes, they’re sometimes repetitive, yes they sometimes involve a call and response between singer and audience, but that’s exactly what’s needed here.
The singing qualities of the actors are, shall we say, mixed. As Ann, Marion Cotillard has a superb voice, Adam Driver less so. He just about holds up enough to quietly complement her on their duets, but his solo singing is quite terrible. Maybe he should have copied Simon Hellberg (in the cast list as The Accompanist) who speaks most of his lines over a musical backdrop. This works surprizingly well.
Hellberg is pretty impressive as the conductor and piano player who accompanies Ann and had had a brief affair with her before Henry came onto the scene. He is the mild, humble alternative to the brash comedian – the person who should have got the girl if the world were a little more fair, but this is not a film that indulges sentimentality.
I can imagine people loving or hating Annette, but it is not a film to encourage much indifference. If you can get on board with a singing puppet, if you look back nostalgically to the time when actors just broke into song for no reason, if you get unduly excited in anticipation of a soundtrack by Sparks, this may be something for you. On the other hand, if you find the whole thing entirely irritating, I do understand where you’re coming from.
Second Viewing – February 2022
Short of many new interesting films in the cinemas I get into for free, I decided to spend my Sunday afternoon revisiting one of last year’s favourites. I stand by what I wrote then, more or less, but have a couple of extra remarks.
Is Henry’s routine supposed to be Any Good?
This question isn’t as easy to answer as you’d think. We see Henry performing twice – one in LA where he goes down like a bomb, and once more in Vegas where he just bombs. The content of the two acts is not noticeably different – although the analogy in Vegas to getting a blow job in a gas chamber is in poor taste, it’s not that he was holding things back in LA. The main difference is that the LA audience was on his side, while the Vegas audience turned on him.
In LA, the audience is feeding him his lines – literally. His routine depends on them repeatedly asking why he became a comedian, so that he can go on a rambling non-answer. The answer is not particularly funny, but it’s what they want. He is violent, misogynistic, misanthropic and self-pitying, but with the right support, this somehow works. It’s not an act that I’d pay money to see, but who am I to judge?
The problem is that it is an act which depends entirely on presentation with little regard for content. So, it needs the audience participation to succeed. It is not a coincidence that the Vegas performance comes shortly after 6 women accuse Henry of violent abuse (of which more later), and Henry’s idolatrous public becomes noticeably less idolatrous. Without the indulgent audience, that joke isn’t funny any more.
The problem with Adam Driver’s voice
It is not that Adam Driver has a bad voice – for most of the time, he more or less acquits himself, although there are some songs towards the end that he struggles with. The problem is that he has a weak voice. Which means in that the duets with Marillon Cotillard, he is barely audible. This has a negative dramatic effect – he’s supposed to be the brutal, strong one who slays his audience, while she’s the peacemaker who saves hers. But she easily wins the singing wars.
Even when they’re singing their love for each other, it is Ann’s voice that dominates. Now it may well be that Ann loves Henry more than Henry loves her (though not more than Henry loves Henry), but he is a showman. A better singer would have at least proclaimed his love loudly, however insincere he is. Driver is not that singer.
What’s with those #metoo allegations?
Again, I mentioned this first time round, but this is a little annoying. In the middle of the film, 6 women come up and accuse Henry of abuse. This has a certain dramatic effect – it immediately precedes the Vegas catastrophe, and it makes the audience think that Henry could be a wrong un (as if this were ever in doubt). But we never hear from the women again.
Now in a film that is already way over 2 hours long, it’s not necessarily a wise move to demand that it be even longer. But the accusations are interesting, not just on a moral and political level, but also dramatically. There was so much potential here to do something interesting with the story. Ok, the plot is interesting enough without this, but you did have the feeling of a missed opportunity.
Basically, it’s Tommy revisited, isn’t it?
I already alluded to this in the original review. Annette comes from a tradition of Rock Operas that don’t make sense because they’re not supposed to make sense. Like Tommy, the main subject of Annette is the ridiculousness of fame. But once you’ve asserted that your main point is ridiculous, large chunks of the plot don’t need to make sense.
A deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a world champion pinball player and leads a cult doesn’t make sense. A baby, who is actually a doll, becoming a singer who fills stadiums doesn’t make sense. They don’t have to make sense either. Annette (and Tommy for that matter) is none the worse for being slightly stupid. But it does need it’s audience to unquestioningly accept that stupidity.