"So, may we start?"
That's how director Leos Carax (Holy Motors) kicks off this offbeat collaboration with cult darlings, the Sparks Brothers, who have undergone a renaissance over the last year thanks to this and Edgar Wright's documentary about the band. As it turns out, Carax has been a fan of brothers Ron and Russell Mael since discovering their music in the 1970s - and had been wanting to do a musical for a while - so when he finally met Sparks, and they mentioned this project, he just had to be involved. In that regard, Annette has gone through quite a journey on its way to the screen. The Maels had originally spoken with other directors before Carax signed on in 2016, and the role of Ann was set to be played by Rooney Mara, then Michelle Williams, before finally settling on Marion Cotillard.
I had the pleasure of seeing Annette at the Institut Francais, which was followed by a live Q&A (remember those?) with Leos Carax and his biographer Garin Dowd, who proved to be a thoughtful and generous interviewer.
From the moment it begins, Annette seeks to enter into a contract with its audience - ensuring that they are ready, and making them complicit in the events that are about to unfold. They ask permission to start the show, and even have a 'break clause' for people who'd like to leave early: "The exits are clearly marked, thought you should know". As it turns out, one of the people in my row decided to take them up on that offer, although it wasn't until about 45 minutes into this 141 minute epic. I must admit a certain pleasure in films that spark (no pun intended) that kind of visceral response from the audience.
Annette tells the story of the titular character through the lens of her parents' whirlwind romance and love affair. Marion Cotillard plays Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved opera soprano; while Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a controversial stand-up comedian who performs under the moniker 'The Ape of God'. They're an unlikely duo whose pairing inspires a media frenzy, which provides the filmmakers with an opportunity to comment on modern tabloid journalism and celebrity obsession. The course of their relationship is charted by way of short interludes from the imaginary Showbizz News, which serves to mark out the various 'chapters' of the film.
Their relationship unfolds in the way one would expect, but it changes with the arrival of baby Annette (as most relationships inevitably do). The real surprise, which hadn't been revealed in any of the trailers I saw, is that it's actually a Mari-annette - a puppet designed and constructed especially for the film. In the Q&A after the screening, Carax explained that this was a deliberate choice: there were things they required that a baby couldn't do, but they didn't want to create a CGI version of the character. He settled on the idea of finding a puppet that both the cast and the audience could connect with, although it took a while before he discovered Estelle Charlier who created the look, and Romuald Collinet who brought the puppet to life.
Over time, Ann and Henry's relationship sours, and professional jealousy sends Henry down a dark path - first with Ann, then eventually with Annette and the Accompanist (Simon Helberg) as his own career declines. There are various motifs and visual cues throughout the film, and one of those is the growing wine-stain (birthmark) on the side of Henry's face as his actions get progressively worse. As I was watching, it made me think of the brand associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, which is interesting as Carax referenced this during the Q&A, but said it was in relation to a different Hawthorne story, The Birth-Mark. He also mentioned that the original inspiration for the wine-stain was to act as a counterpoint to Marion Cotillard's natural beauty spot on her forehead.
Other subtle visual cues reveal themselves throughout the film, such as the way Ann is frequently seen eating an apple, and Henry is seen with a banana. Someone asked about the apple during the Q&A, and Carax was quick to shrug it off. He felt that people want to find metaphors in everything but, like the puppet, it was just a choice. Nonetheless, it did seem to share elements with Snow White and the poisoned apple for me, and I think Carax's dismissal was more in line with remaining enigmatic rather than providing any definitive solutions. As for Henry's use of the banana, he does refer to himself as 'The Ape of God', so that felt more like an affectation on his character's part than anything deeper.
Again, this enables them to explore the dark side of celebrity, and provides the missing link between Adam Driver's character in Girls and his evolution as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars saga. As always, Driver is eminently watchable - even at his most unlikable - and this only reinforces the man-crush I've been harbouring for years. Add in Marion Cotillard, whose presence always draws you to her on-screen - and Devyn McDowell, who makes a stand-out performance as the living embodiment of Annette towards the end of the film - and you have a cinematic tour de force. Simon Helberg also proves to be an unexpected joy, in his small but pivotal role as the Accompanist. It was great to see him in a different light to the bumbling Howard Wolowitz on TV's The Big Bang Theory, and I hope we'll see more of him in other roles. I know Driver, for one, is already planning his next collaboration with Carax.
The film ends rather beautifully, as it began, with the cast (and now the entire crew) thanking the audience for their attention. The contract is complete, and we're all happily on the other side. It really brings things full circle, and lightens the tone after what has been a fairly harrowing experience. As the credits roll, we get a glimpse of some further inspiration in the form of Carax's Special Thanks list. Continuing the literary theme, Carax pays tribute to Edgar Allan Poe - which someone asked about during the Q&A - and he related it back to Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. He also references other inspirations such as Stephen Sondheim, Béla Balázs, Béla Bartók, and King Vidor.
While not a blockbuster in the sense of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or No Time To Die, it warrants a big-screen viewing to take in the scope of its theatre-style sets and grand themes. To fulfil the contract laid out by the filmmakers, it's a movie you need to watch without interruption and really commit to, which is something a lot of us struggle with in other settings. It also feels like something that should be undertaken together, which makes the cinema experience all the more appealing. Annette is currently screening at Ciné Lumière, as well as other screens around the country in collaboration with distributor/streaming service MUBI.