Cannes 2021: Leos Carax's 'Annette' is an Epicly Cynical Rock Opera
by Alex Billington
July 6, 2021
What better way to kick off the 2021 Cannes Film Festival than with an epic, wild, absurdly original musical about the vanity and selfishness of show business. "So may we start?" Annette is the latest creation of French director Leos Carax, who certainly has a knack for musical cinema, and the Sparks Brothers, two extremely talented musical brothers (who are also profiled in this year's documentary The Sparks Brothers directed by Edgar Wright). Together they've created an unquestionably original and unquestionably wild big screen musical based around a love story which eventually turns into something else entirely involving an odd wooden puppet baby as its plays out over 2 hours, 20 minutes. There's something beautifully admirable about a movie musical that is this audacious, and this cynical when it really gets into the depths of the plot.
Here's the good news: Carax's Annette is a go-for-broke, all-out, epic rock opera made for the cinema that's about, well, abusive men and exploitation in the entertainment industry. It follows two extremely famous people (one is a comedian, the other is an opera singer) and their ups & downs, along with what happens when they have a baby and realize this baby is also talented and can make them even more famous. The film is endlessly witty, crazy creative, and totally ridiculous. It's almost as if the Sparks Brothers took a bit of A Star is Born and a bit of Vox Lux and blended it all together with the grit & grime of the industry to create a horrifying and fascinating smoothie about how messed up fame really is. The audacity is off the charts and it's simultaneously mocking the art of live performance (with some very clever songs) and making us swoon over excessively garish musical numbers. They didn't hold back on going all-out grand for most of the songs.
It's pretty clear that musical duo the Sparks Brothers – Ron Mael & Russell Mael – spent years crafting a grand opera that is jaw-droppingly cynical about seriously serious topics and how terrible the entertainment industry can be. It's structured like two-act opera, and presented more straight-forward than Leos Carax's is known for with his other films. There are musical numbers galore, followed by "fade to black" moments, like any opera on stage. There's a few exceptional songs made out of interactions with the paparazzi, child birth, cunnilingus, even a police interview. I have to admit, I was in awe of how masterfully they crafted these kinda cheesy-yet-kinda catchy songs about such strange moments. The whole film is pretty damn dark with quite a strange ending. Much more cynical and damning than expected from the start once it gets going with these two star-crossed lovers. Carax knows how to make one hell of an original music, that's for damn sure.
Best of all, even if you hate the music in Annette, or get tired of the story, or grow weary of its message – Adam Driver is extraordinary, as always, especially in musical form. He is such an amazing actor and gives astoundingly deep performances time and time again. Here he goes the extra mile not only with knock-out comedy performances "live" on stage, also with evocative musical scenes obviously hinting at who he really is deep down as he falls for this "perfect" opera beauty. Marion Cotillard is also magnificent, giving her role as his lover just the right amount of gravitas. Though the other standout is Simon Helberg as "The Conductor", an important role that you'll discover more about while watching the film. Each of them is vital in providing a robust & dynamic experience that will probably leave viewers bewildered more than pleased.
While there are issues with the film's overall flow, primarily muddled moments scattered throughout and dull transitions, it is still an enriching and enlivening movie musical. And it's one of those rare movies that you can say – there is truly nothing else like it. Not only in its cynical look at the entertainment world, but with a smattering of eclectic songs you've never heard before, and ambitious musical scenes that you may never be able to get out of your mind. Carax & Sparks are not messing around. They have something to say.