Typical. You wait half a century for a movie featuring Sparks – the eccentric glam-synth duo who enjoyed a hit in 1974 with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” – and then two arrive at once. Following Edgar Wright’s recent documentary The Sparks Brothers, comes the musical Annette, featuring new songs and an original story by the band. Original, that is, if a rock opera about a gifted child exploited by an abusive parent doesn’t bring the Who and Ken Russell’s Tommy to mind. As in Tommy, every word in Annette is sung. All except one: “merde”. Make of that what you will.
Sparks are first shown performing their surging number “So May We Start” in a Los Angeles studio before taking the song on to the streets accompanied by the cast, including Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. It’s a spectacular beginning, and the highlight of the film, though any expectation that the musicians will wander in and out of the action in the manner of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye in Cat Ballou is misplaced. Henceforth, Sparks are heard but not seen, save for a cameo as airline pilots. This could be a reference to their 1975 album Indiscreet, where they were pictured among the debris of a light aircraft, or simply a visual pun (Sparks fly).
Cotillard plays Ann, an opera singer; Driver is her boyfriend Henry, a successful but angst-ridden stand-up comic. Though he delivers part of the duet “We Love Each Other So Much” while coming up for air from between Ann’s thighs, his behaviour is conflicted to say the least. He likens getting engaged to swimming with a concrete block tied to one testicle, and jokes publicly about uxoricide. Ann happens to be starring in the Béla Bartók opera Bluebeard’s Castle, so clearly this film won’t be big enough for both of them.
When their daughter Annette is born, she is played by a marionette doll with a glowing ET heart and a face only a puppeteer could love. The wonder here is not that the director Leos Carax should make so unorthodox a choice. This, don’t forget, is the man who sent Juliette Binoche waterskiing down the Seine beneath cascading fireworks in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. What is striking about his casting decision is that the little pile of timber acts everyone else off the screen. Annette also turns out to have a formidable set of pipes, which Henry realises could make him a pretty penny. “Millions will go wild/Cherishing the child,” he sings.
Driver, one of the mutable marvels of 21st-century screen acting, is rendered oddly dismal here: he’s a moping mop of crimped hair and lugubriousness. His character arc is a plateau not a downfall, so that when he stares at himself in a mirror near the end of the movie and asks, “Will I ever be lovable again?” the only sane response is, “What do you mean ‘again’?”
It might have helped if this professional stand-up had exhibited a sense of humour occasionally. Every time Henry set foot on stage, though, I thought of the old Bob Monkhouse gag: “They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now.”
Possibly, Carax was hoping for the sort of frisson between performer and genre seen in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, where Robert De Niro’s realist acting style clashed spectacularly with his synthetic, razzle-dazzle surroundings. The difference in Annette is that Driver’s dourness is replicated rather than offset by everything around him. The movie becomes not merely the story of a misogynist but one that reproduces his misogyny on every level.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the indifference shown towards Ann, whose name might as well be short for Anonymous. What dreams is she putting on hold to accommodate Henry’s demands? What does she want from her life? The film isn’t curious. At each point, it is Henry’s experience that predominates. It’s almost as if Carax believes white male misogynists to be under-represented in our culture, and is anxious to correct the imbalance.
At least the movie’s ugliness is consistent. In other respects, it appears beyond Carax’s abilities to sustain an idea from one moment to the next. Ann watches a TV news item about wild fires sweeping across LA intercut with reports that six women have accused Henry of violence, but she needn’t worry: neither subject crops up again. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell ellipsis from oversight. Ann’s conductor (Simon Helberg) admits to an affair with her, but the strength of his ardour (“My love for her has never died”) is undermined somewhat by the fact that we don’t ever see them together.
A treat lies in store for anyone with the stamina to reach the final scene of this long film, when the task of playing Annette passes to the eerily talented child actor Devyn McDowell. Even as audiences gratefully receive this last-minute gift, however, they are still likely to know how Sparks felt on the cover of Indiscreet, gazing around at the wreckage and wondering what went wrong.
dir: Leos Carax
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future