Film Review: “Annette” — A Rock Opera That Goes Backward in Order to Go Forward
By Michael Marano
I want to gird you, readers, for the insanity and beauty of Annette.
Annette, directed by Leos Carax. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.
First time I saw Leos Carax’s Annette, I went in cold, without even having seen the trailer. I’d read no reviews out of Cannes. And was monstrously sleep-deprived. This last factor, especially, was a mistake. It’s hard, when your brain is starved for REM sleep, to process a movie brimming with dream-like images from the guy who brought us Holy Motors, especially when that movie clocks in at almost two and a half hours.
I disliked it, a lot.
But I had an itch at the back of my head telling me I might be wrong, especially since that itch kept manifesting itself as scenes from the movie that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
Then I saw it again.
It’s pretty freakin’ brilliant.
So much so, that writing this review is a tightrope walk. I want to gird you, the reader, for the insanity and beauty of Annette (for which I was unprepared), and to not undermine that insanity and beauty.
Annette is a rock opera, with songs and story written by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks (profiled earlier this year in Edgar Wright’s documentary, The Sparks Brothers). Annette is an innovation among rock operas, because it has the bravery to go backward a century or two in order to go forward. Yes, Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar and American Idiot and to a certain extent Quadrophenia are rock operas. But Annette accepts the challenge of grappling with the themes, motifs, and emotional hyperbole of classical opera. Blind, Deaf, and Dumb Pinball Wizards may be awesome, but they don’t have antecedents from, or build upon, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, La Bohème and Otello (and a slew of others) the way that Annette does. The film is a beautifully crafted dialogue with opera’s past. And that dialogue, like many of the exchanges between the story’s characters, takes on the form of the singing of a round… that eventually harmonizes the past and the present.
Like all good operas, Annette begins with an Overture. And that Overture (albeit, a figurative one with lyrics) is filmed by Carax with stunning, gorgeous virtuosity, highlighted by a single tracking shot that’s gonna be taught in film schools side-by-side with Orson Welles’ opening tracking shot in Touch of Evil.
Annette‘s beginning isn’t just an Overture. The song, “May We Start?” collects the writers, the directors, the cast, the backing vocalists, everybody as they ask permission to begin the film.
But who’s being asked?
Turns out it’s us, the audience.
Annette is a film about the relationship between performers and their audiences. Each of the film’s four lead characters are artists. Marion Cotillard plays Ann, an opera singer who figuratively “dies” for her audience each night. Adam Driver is Henry, Ann’s husband and a thoroughly douche-y and unfunny stand-up comic whose audience (whom he “kills”) delightedly eats up his contempt for them. Simon Helberg is “The Conductor,” who tears out his still-beating heart and exposes his innermost feelings as he leads orchestras. And then there is the titular Annette herself, Ann and Henry’s daughter, played by a number of performers, whose relationship to her parents and her audience is… complicated, to say the least.
All four of these characters engage in more than just complex and multi-layered interactions with their fictional audiences within the movie’s storylines. They have complex and multi-layered interactions with us, with those who are viewing the film Annette.
The opening shot and Overture and the song “May We Start?” tell us that the artists aren’t the only ones charged with getting this artistic enterprise started. It’s you, too. Annette demands that its viewers be active. By singing and dancing through the diegetic barrier, the writers, lyricists, filmmaker, and cast demand that viewers take responsibility for what they see. The lyrics to “May We Start?” lay this out:
We’ve fashioned a world, a world — built just for you
A tale of songs and fury — with no taboo
We’ll sing and die for you — yes, in minor keys
And if you want us to kill, too — we may agree
And when it comes to how one of those four leads of Annette is perceived, by the characters in the film and by us, this invitation for viewers turns into an indictment. We’re not off the hook. Our perception of a protagonist in Annette changes dramatically by the film’s end. How that person is perceived by the other characters in the film evolves in ways that conclude with the payment of a high and horrible price. By implication, we’ve paid that price, too. Vicariously, maybe. But we’ve paid it.
Annette certainly isn’t without its faults. It’s too long, for one. Yeah, I know. There’s no such thing as a short opera. But Ken Russell brought us Tommy in under two hours, and managed to treat us to the aural joys of Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson singing like chain-smoking stegosauruses along the way. And Peter Brook squished Carmen down to the runtime of a ’70s Made-For-TV movie. In Annette, full-blown orchestral movements are marched in when a few words of spoken dialogue could have gotten the narrative job done. Certain songs and motifs are overused to the point of tedium.
But these aren’t fatal flaws. All those involved are 100% committed to this utterly bonkers endeavor, and that lends the artifice of this gloriously self-conscious movie — from its songwriting to its hyperbolic, A Star Is Born-like melodrama — an admirably genuine humanity.
Since 1990, Michael Marano (www.michaelmarano.com) has been covering film for the nationally syndicated Public Radio Satellite System program Movie Magazine International, which airs in 111 markets in the US and Canada. He has provided film reviews and pop culture commentary for a variety of national publications, and Tweets at @MikeMarano