Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard

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

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

28 January 2013-01-28

holy motors04

Out in the UK This Week



Holy Motors (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

From Leos Carax, who only seems to manage one feature film a decade, a unique and remarkable French film that only starts to make sense towards the end, after Kylie Minogue has sung us a song. Like Pola X, his last (in 1999), it’s a highly gothic, amphetamine rave of a movie, a mad mix of situationist vignettes following Denis Lavant (who surely should get some award for sheer physicality) as he works his way through a series of disguises, one of which involves being dressed as a mad tramp and kidnapping a model from a photo shoot (played by Eva Mendes). To explain what the plot is about is to ruin it. Just watch it.

Holy Motors – at Amazon

The Queen of Versailles (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

What luck. When a documentary maker starts out making Documentary A, only to find that they’re sitting on top of a much bigger story. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (nice Jewish family turns out unexpectedly to be anything but) being a prime example. Something similar has happened to Lauren Greenfield. On the way to making a film about “the biggest house in America” – said building being a self-confident, unashamed avowal of success or a nouveau riche monstrosity, depending on your class loyalties – her subjects, timeshare magnate David Siegel and his blonde trophy wife Jaqueline run smack dang into the financial crisis that’s now enveloped us all. Greenfield keeps the camera rolling and, as private jets are swapped for trips on commercial airlines, and Jaqueline’s jaw hits the floor when the Hertz guy tells her the rental car doesn’t come with a driver, we’re fed a fresh portrait of these recessionary times that asks us to feel billionaire pain. Why this works is because it’s the whole financial mess the western world is in boiled down to one fascinating, frequently boggling story.

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

Looper (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Brick was high-school noir, now director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt bring us future noir, a walk through Philip K Dick territory in which Gordon-Levitt plays a heartless hitman offing guys from the future. Until his own future self (played by a soulful Bruce Willis) arrives on the scene. Seen in some quarters as “the 21st century’s The Matrix” – wasn’t that Inception? – Looper efficiently does what sci-fi movies about the future do. It seemingly explores the paradoxes of time travel but mostly it just fucks with our heads. Initially cool, increasingly chaotic, ultimately slightly disappointing, this is nevertheless a worthwhile dystopian sci-fi. The 21st century’s Blade Runner. How’s that?

Looper – at Amazon


Ashes (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Ray Winstone as a hardman with Alzheimer’s – that’s the USP of this unusual gangster thriller also starring Jim Sturgess as Winstone’s son, who busts him out of the clinic and takes him on a road trip for one last hurrah. The whole thing plays like a cross between Rain Man (the trip) and Unforgiven (is Winstone going to recover his mojo and strap the guns back on?). But Ashes has a few twists up its sleeve that certainly got me leaning forwards. Sure, Alzheimer’s as a subject isn’t exactly going to revive the fortunes of Blockbuster but it does allow Winstone to stretch a bit and co-star Jim Sturgess, so out of place as Anne Hathaway’s beau in One Day, is right on the money here too.

Ashes – at Amazon


5 Broken Cameras (New Wave, cert E, DVD)

The cameras of the title belong to a Palestinian peasant whose land was cut in two by the Israeli security barrier. We get to see just how they got broken – a bullet is lodged in one, which gives you some idea. A nifty hook on which to hang a documentary and surprisingly the picture it paints of the Israeli army isn’t such a bad one. It’s the Jewish guys in hats and ringlets settling the Palestinian territory who don’t come out of this so well.

5 Broken Cameras – at Amazon


Paranorman (Universal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Not to be confused with Frankenweenie, though there’s definitely some Tim Burton in Paranorman somewhere, here’s an animated kiddie-flick in the new Aardman style (CGI pretending to be claymation) about a boy who can see dead people. It takes a hell of a time to get going but then manages a good 40 minutes of fast Roald Dahl-style ghostly fun before heading for the icky ending someone in a suit decreed. If you’re really young, you’ll probably like it.

Paranorman – at Amazon


Keep the Lights On (Peccadillo, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A decade in the relationship of a New York gay couple – from frenzied early coupling, through crack pipes and promiscuity to… well let’s not ruin the ending. It’s a part-autobiography by writer/director Ira Sachs, and like his Forty Shades of Blue it’s got a distinctive tone of voice, is fresh, non-clichéd and very real. Apparently Sachs is doing a film about elderly gay guys next, starring Michael Gambon and Alfred Molina. Should be interesting.

Keep the Lights On – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2013