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The formidably talented maverick Leos Carax hasn’t made a feature in nine years, nothing since 2012’s batshit Holy Motors, so that’s one thing to thank the new movie Annette for. Whether Annette actually is a Carax movie at all is the question though.

How so, you ask. Because Annette is written by Ron (he of toothbrush moustache) and Russell (he of swooping voice) Mael, the brothers behind Sparks, the US band that bounced into the zeitgeist in 1974 with the song This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, and has returned, comet-like, every few years since with material ear-catching and interesting enough to win new fans.

Originally bracketed with the glam crowd – Bowie, Bolan, Roxy Music etc – Sparks long ago abandoned conventional genre categorisation and have always been up for innovation on their journey along the road less travelled. You might remember their collaboration with Franz Ferdinand a few years back, the resulting supergroup going by the abbreviation FFS. Funny.

Annette is a musical, but it’s not Sparks’ first attempt at one. In the late 1980s, they tried to make a movie musical version of the Japanese manga Mai, the Psychic Girl – both Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola were involved at different points. In 2009 they released a radio musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

Sparks clearly have fans. Edgar Wright’s film, The Sparks Brothers, also hit screens in 2021 and getting Carax to direct is obviously a coup, as is getting Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard to star.

Driver plays successful stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (more of a conceptual comedian than a funny one) who does his audience-baiting shows in a boxer’s towelling robe. Cotillard is Ann Defrasnoux, a feted opera singer. He spends his nights trying not to die on stage whereas she almost inevitably does die, in one tragic heroine role or another.

Life mirroring art, with male rage as the theme, it’s a boy-meets-girl, boy-kills-girl story conducted at operatic intensity, Cotillard continuing to exert presence after Ann’s gone thanks to a plot involving her vengeful spirit visiting Henry from beyond the watery grave.

Baby Annette arrives on the scene about halfway in – not a real baby but something assembled from offcuts of Pinocchio and a waft of CG, from the look of her – then grows up and becomes a singer in her own right. Baby Annette, a global sensation.

Carax is never one for realism but keeps it within the hedges for the most part, only occasionally really letting things rip, as in the scene on a boat when Henry and Ann’s fading romance finally becomes terminal and the sea around them boils like an expressionist painting. But for the most part Carax shoots as if this were a colour version of a 1940s melodrama – angular lighting, lurid hues, tunnels, corridors down which deadpan characters stalk.

Sparks singing So May We Start
Sparks perform So May We Start

There are a couple of good songs, the grand “here’s the gang” intro So May We Start and the love duet True Love (first time I’ve seen sung-through cunnilingus), plus a lot of what would be called recitative if this was an opera, which it almost is.

Kurt Weill (angularity) and maybe a touch of Tom Lehrer (the raised-eyebrow rhymes) can be detected, perhaps, but the songs most often call to mind Lin-Manuel Miranda – I don’t think for a second the Mael brothers borrowed anything from Miranda, just that his success probably helped make Annette possible and both parties love to get dextrous with the verbals.

Simon Helberg, who you might remember as the accompanist in Florence Foster Jenkins, plays another accompanist here, as the musician with a secret longing to have what Henry has, and Helberg gives it the full tormented-musician shtick, and even gets an amusing song explaining why a relatively minor character in the Ann/Henry firmament is getting so much screen time.

We know Cotillard can sing – she was an amazing (and Oscar-winning) Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (aka La Môme). Though he had a Sondheim number in Marriage Story, it’s Driver who’s the revelation as the pugilitistic comedian, as good as her in terms of sheer performance power, even if it’s hard to match her for pipework.

After all that, all that talent, all that novelty, all that effort, it’s sad to report Annette is a bit of a bore. Two good songs, and both of those up front, can’t hide the fact that there’s a dearth of tunes later on, and things start to go into ambient Sparks auto-generator mode. Given that it’s a tale at least partly about two celebrities struggling to accomodate each other’s fame, a burst of This Town Ain’t Big Enough would have slotted in neatly, but doing things the easy way is not the Sparks way.

Sparks not Carax. The visuals feel like an afterthought, which is odd for him, as if he’s expended most of his directorial energy getting brilliant performances out of his cast. Oh well.

Annette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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