Many times over the course of a film critic or film lover’s life they will get the courage to say to someone else “You’ve never seen anything like… ” It happens so often for many films and, for the most part, those who hear it will have their anticipation soured for no amount of hyperbolic rhetoric can match expectations. Sometimes, though, such words ring true as is the case for Annette, a film we have no qualms in saying that you truly, remarkably, haven’t seen anything quite like it, nor will you for a very long time, thanks in no small part to the music of legendary pop duo Sparks and the always eccentric filmmaker Leos Carax. Now, may we start?
Where we start is with Henry (Adam Driver), a successful stand-up comedian with an edge whose wicked sense of humour charms Ann (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer famous across the world. Falling in love under the intense, sometimes barbaric spotlight of fame and celebrity, their relationship soon becomes stronger with the arrival of their first daughter, Annette who, unbeknownst to her parents, may have a destiny bigger and more powerful than all of them combined.
As the film begins with its annoyingly catchy “So May We Start?” with piano chords being joined by tambourines and guitar riffs as it ascends into our ears, its lyrics “They hope that it goes the way it’s supposed to go” is symbolic of the film you’re about to watch: the story, narrative, music, and relationships won’t conclude anywhere close to where they began and its unique, off-kilter sensitivities will transcend any of those aforementioned preconceptions and instead embrace its strangeness at full throttle. Like a well-catered buffet, there is so much to enjoy and indulge in and while some of the entrees may not be to everyone’s taste, you’ll still feel full afterward.
If you’ve followed Carax’s eclectic career so far, whether with 2012’s super-powered, mad but sensational Holy Motors or way back in his 1984 debut Boy Meets Girl, you’ll know the mad rollercoaster of emotion, colour, music, and, well, life you’re set to embark on but in perhaps his most daring effort yet, you’ll still be shocked at just where he takes us and how we get there. Songs performed during lovemaking and giving birth – and we mean DURING – probably weren’t things you expected to see and yet, here we are, hypnotised by its beauty, repelled by its boldness with the two combining to create a dreamy, captivating, baffling fall down the rabbit hole.
Diving headfirst into a story about fame, fortune, Hollywood, misogyny, resentment, jealously, sexual abuse, and parenthood, we’re presented with subjects we have seen take centre stage even more in modern cinema but under Carax‘s hypnotic framing and head-spinning direction, it’s as rich, compelling and deranged as anything he has produced. Fuelled by two sensational lead performances by Driver and Cotillard, as well as an understated yet powerful turn from Simon Helberg as Ann’s accompanist (there’s a song that will fill you in if you’re unsure what that is), it’s impossible to ignore even though it’s hugely challenging and, at times, the wrong side of meandering in its storytelling journey.
Of course, as we write this we are acutely aware that Annette is a film that will split audiences right down the centre but, as with his previous efforts, that’s exactly what Carax wants from us as a minimum: a reaction. Whether you have a positive or negative one will probably crystallise for you inside the first half-hour but stick with it – whether you want to or not – because you’ll be grateful you took the ride into the abyss and survived.
Musical, Drama | Cert 15 | Cinema, 3rd September 2021/ Mubi, November 26th 2021 | Mubi | Dir: Leos Carax | Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg. Sparks