Annette’s chaos and surrealism will leave you wondering ‘what did I just watch?’
Warning: mild spoilers!
It is hard to categorise Annette into one genre or concept, although it can be classified as the most chaotic film to be released in 2021. Annette follows the story of the idiosyncratic comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and the soprano phenomenon Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) as they fall in love in the public eye, eventually giving birth to a baby girl, Annette, who is represented by a puppet. Most dialogue is delivered as a musical, written and produced by the acclaimed Sparks, an odd choice at first which comes to unwrap itself into a genius medium to tell this story in. The film goes on to reveal a much darker tone, tragic events lead to the unravelling of Henry and leaves us with an image of what happens to a person when envy and greed destroys all you have. Much like Annette being played by a puppet, rather than a human, many other aspects of the film are gone unexplained. Fantastical elements, such as the film opening and closing with musical numbers with the cast out of character and the crew behind the film featured, is akin to epilogues and prologues in literature. The Oscar-shortlisted opening song ‘So May We Start’ includes the lyrics ‘but where’s the stage you wonder? / is it outside or is it within.’ Warning the audience before the main narrative starts, Annette is a tale that criticises the human’s inner ego and how much of life’s artifice damages this.
The star of Annette is inherently the soundtrack by Sparks, the brother duo who are known for their quirky and avant-garde approach to music. Annette originally started as a concept album for their next big project, but with the introduction of director Leos Carax, the story was produced for the big screen. The songs are not cryptic, they tell the story and inner emotions of each character who sings, verging sometimes as dialogue with a background music, contrasting with other numbers which are more fitting for musicals. Some lyrics do not fit with the rhythm of the melodies, as if thoughts are being squished into the perfect timing of the songs. The medium of the musical in this film is used incredibly well. In contrast to a film like Les Misérables (2012), where the intention is to be a fully-fledged musical in the way it is performed, Annette uses the musical genre as though to be ironic. For example, the song ‘We Love Each Other So Much’ feels like a mockery of many great musical ballads. The narrative of Annette does not feel like it was meant to be told in musical form, it is as though one of David Lynch’s films has been forcefully constrained into musical numbers. However, this effect is what makes Sparks’ soundtrack genius. Henry McHenry’s selfishness and despicable tendencies wrapped up in musical format relays the message of fake-ness to the audience. Obvious artificial backdrops and the use of puppetry throughout adds to this further. The meaning of this is open for interpretation, yet a possible critique on fame culture and how ‘not everything is as great as it seems’ springs to mind.
Adam Driver’s performance of Henry McHenry boils down to his ability to play sinister characters very well. It is rare to see Driver in a musical setting, however, his Julliard background would have helped him convey the character’s emotions through the mix of song and heavily choreographed movements. The scenes which portray his stand-up comedy sketches are particularly clever. The tripping over and entanglement in his microphone chord and his movements across the stage bring a comedic element to the start of the film, yet as the story progresses the use of choreographed movements makes the scenes tense and unnerving. ‘The Ape of God,’ Henry’s on-stage persona becomes a recurring motif throughout the film. The imagery of gorillas personifying him, to Henry eating bananas before his performance then casting the skins aside with disdain, builds up Henry thinking he is an apex predator in the performing world. This is then only to be brought down by the better success his wife, Ann, is having, which sparks Henry’s lyrics and movements to change to erratic and desperate. More shots of him lying on the floor thereafter are added to represent the Shakespearean trope of a man fallen from great heights.
Lighting in the film is also particularly important in Annette, to cascade the film in purposeful artifice and surrealism. There are two bright scenes in the film, one is near the beginning, where Ann and Henry are walking through a meadow, at the height of their love story. The other scene is at the end where Annette, now portrayed as a human girl, is finally being seen by her father as a real person, and not a ‘puppet’ that was used for child exploitation, a final glimpse of hope for her, now she has closed her relationship with her father. The rest of the film is more or less carpeted in darker lighting, with hints of colour to portray the characters’ emotions. At the moments where Henry is in his most psychotic state, the scenes are lit with green to emphasise that sense of envy that has overcome him. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier captured the film between a surreal, dream-like fantasy, with obvious artificial lighting and slight movements of the camera as though you are watching it through someone’s eyes, the camera is hardly ever still. This only exemplifies the story’s purpose of portraying fake and fabricated tones.
At first viewing, Annette can be tough to chew and to get your head around, especially at a runtime of two hours and twenty-one minutes. Yet the chaos that Leos Carax delivered is something that sticks in your head for many days after, forcing you to think about the film. The emotion is translated through it well and the concept album by Sparks which accompanies the film is a paring that is rarely seen in the film industry. Therefore, a uniqueness is found in Annette that celebrates aspects of Old Hollywood and French New Wave but done in an outlandish way.