It’s the old story: boy meets girl, girl and boy fall in love, boy and girl have a child. The boy, a cynical, self-loathing comedian, can’t handle the fact that the girl, an opera singer, is both beloved by her audience and more successful, so he… doesn’t exactly kill her, but, well. Their baby starts to sing in a haunting voice whenever she is exposed to starlight (real or fake), so her father turns her into an international sensation – and makes a nice buck in the process.
Oh, and the child is a wooden puppet. You know, that old story.
When I first heard of Annette, I was excited – mainly because I loved Carax’ previous film, Holy Motors. (Sadly, that’s also the only Carax film I’d seen, and the box set I ordered last autumn has yet to arrive.) More than that, Annette was announced to be a musical, and my two favourite scenes in Holy Motors lean heavily into the use of music. Obviously, after Holy Motors I wasn’t expecting a conventional musical but something more self-conscious of its own artifice, something wild and imaginative, going places that other films and directors wouldn’t go. Early reviews from the festival circle seemed to confirm that I would indeed get this from Annette. Mostly, I expected to enjoy the film a lot.
In so many ways, and definitely when it comes to culture, I’ve often found that expectations are bastards. I was expecting to like, perhaps even love Annette – and in its first few minutes, I was there, I was ready, and I was enjoying myself. From the first, Carax and his collaborators – his leads Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard (who play the comedian Henry McHenry and the soprano Ann Defrasnoux), but also his composers, Russell and Ron Mael AKA Sparks – embrace theatricality in a way that is rare in cinema but much more frequent in, well, theatre, breaking the fourth wall and blurring the lines between performer and character. I loved the first song, “So May We Start”, which starts in a recording studio and ends with the actors having slipped into their roles. And then I very quickly fell out of love with the film.
Musicals are tricky: much like Elizabethan theatre, they are inherently stylised and artificial. In real life, people burst into song to express their feelings as rarely as they suddenly start speaking in iambic pentameter. If you just ignore this stylisation and aim for some form of naturalism, you’re prone to fail, because you’re trying to ignore a fundamental truth about the material you’re working with. At the same time, the audience has to suspend its disbelief, and that requires an utter commitment to the format, whether that is Elizabethan verse or musical sequences. Subjectively, the stylisation has to feel entirely true to the world or the characters, at least if you want an audience to engage with the work on an emotional level. The audience has to feel that, obviously, Gene Kelly would burst into song and dance, because that’s the only way those particular emotions can be expressed right here and now. This is something of a paradox: directors and actors have to embrace the artifice and use it as a vehicle for an emotional foundation that rings true.
Annette aims for the paradox, but how well does it succeed? There are so many ways in which the artifice is foregrounded, and this begins and ends with the songs: Sparks’ contributions to Annette are musically and lyrically repetitive. The tunes often feel more like jingles that are looped with minimal variation, which is mirrored by the lyrics, which tend to express their ideas in the most straightforward way possible. This is most obvious in the love duet between Henry and Ann, titled “We Love Each Other So Much”, which repeats lines such as “We love each other so much/We love each other so much/So hard to explain it/So hard to explain/We love each other so much”. Sondheim it ain’t, nor is it trying to be – but what it is doing? My impression of several of the songs was that they weren’t aiming to express the sentiments so much as signal or label them, so that the lyrics could as well have been “This is the song/where we express our feelings for/one another”. They’re the lyrical equivalent of Dogville‘s painted outlines and labels on the stage floor, representing buildings, streets and even things like “Gooseberry Bushes”. That kind of Brechtian distancing effect highlights the artifice – which needn’t be a dealbreaker, but formally Annette foregrounds its artifice constantly. It tries to complement that with actors who give it their all – and Cotillard and Driver never give it less than everything, yet the tension between artifice and a genuine emotional core rarely produced anything engaging or interesting for me.
As a result, much of the film felt to me like I was watching great actors trying to perform a Wikipedia summary of a story. As a parody of a genre, or a comment on it, I could imagine this being interesting, or funny, or productively strange. As a film of 140 minutes? Quite honestly, I found myself wanting to fast-forward. Which isn’t to say that there was nothing there for me: throughout Annette, I found individual ideas or compositions or distancing effects fascinating, and none more so than Annette herself, the puppet that is clearly a puppet but still has much of the story’s emotions concentrated on her. Annette bridged the gap between stylisation and a genuine emotional core in ways that intrigued me – but that is one idea, one creative conceit, and it doesn’t carry a 2+ hour film. I frequently found myself thinking of Holy Motors and its episodic nature: most of that film’s ideas, if stretched out over a full feature, might’ve become boring, but in Holy Motors Carax kept throwing new ideas at the audience, both delighting and disorienting us. Don’t respond to one? Ten minutes later there’s going to be something altogether different. In contrast, Annette feels like Carax latching on to one or two of his ideas and seeing how much he can extend these ideas. The answer is: a lot, but he’s not necessarily doing his film any favours doing so.
Annette being a musical, it could have worked (and, frankly, it did work for a lot of critics, so your mileage may well vary) because of the way music works on its audience. Music can engage us emotionally in very different ways from story, characters and dialogue. It isn’t naturalistic or realistic, it can bypass the brain and go straight for the gut. Sparks’ music simply didn’t do that for me. In its repetitiveness, it felt like sketches towards songs, or like jingles on endless loop, made to sound more like actual songs by means of orchestration. Though that’s not quite true: the starting song, which by that time I’d heard a dozen times when watching the trailer, clicked, it added drive and playfulness to the first scene, before the plot is set into motion. But the playfulness either didn’t work in most of the other songs – apart from the occasional audacious scene or moment – or it sat at cross-purposes with the high melodrama of the operatic plot.
Critics were hot and cold on Annette, which suggests that it may be something of a Marmitey film. Perhaps it really comes down to how much one likes Sparks’ music, or the extent to which any given person watching the film enjoys what the film brings to the table – it is audacious and cheeky, and I admit to getting a kick out of Driver serenading Cotillard’s nether regions in mid-cunnilingus, something I’ve not seen in many musicals to date – versus what it never sets out to deliver, namely characters that go beyond archetypes and a plot that gives these characters something interesting to do. It is the stylistic and formal play that worked best for me, but in sum Annette spends too much time and energy on its melodrama and music, neither of which worked particularly well for me. In a film of over two hours, it’s not a good sign if my favourite scenes were the first and last five minutes, and that these were pretty much entirely divorced from the plot and characters we watched for the remainder of the running time. I’m glad that such films get made, and I’d rather Carax kept doing exactly the films he wants to make – but I am sad that his grand puppet tragedy failed to pull my strings.