Annette is the strangest movie musical since Cats. Before you jump to conclusions, there’s a significant difference between Annette and Tom Hooper’s catastrophe. Where Cats misguidedly combined Hooper’s gritty realism with the stage show’s whimsy, Annette is a perfect marriage between its director and songwriting team. Leos Carax’s poetic style and the Sparks’ pop art music go together like Julie Taymor and the Beatles. Annettebegan as a narrative album, but the project took on a new life when the Mael Brothers crossed paths with Carax. Their collaboration is as profound as an opera, as exhilarating as a rock opera, and as original as any movie musical of recent memory.
After showcasing his singing chops in Marriage Story, it was only a matter of time until Adam Driver took center stage in a musical. Driver loses himself in the role of Henry, a standup comedian who treats every show like a boxing match. Literally, he dresses in a bathrobe and boxing shorts, which isn’t even this movie’s tenth weirdest element. Henry is madly in love with Ann (Marion Cotillard), an exquisite soprano who ignites the stage with a conductor played by Simon Helberg. There’s something darker looming beneath the surface of the marriage, though, which comes to light following the birth of their daughter, Annette.
Although I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, it’s hard to critique Annette without discussing a plot point that’s been mostly omitted from the trailers. So, proceed with caution. Annette is… a puppet… who looks like a Good Guy doll if she was designed by Michael Curry. For some, this will be the point where they get out of their seats and say, “nope!” For fans of the surreal, however, this is one of the many creative choices that blends cinema with the stage. The world these characters inhabit exists between the two mediums, resulting in a work that feels artificial and genuine simultaneously. Annette herself may be an obvious puppet, but the craft behind her constantly leaves the audience guessing.
Between Edgar Wright’s Sparks Brothers documentary and now Annette, 2021 belongs to Ron and Russell Mael. Annette hits the ground running with So May We Start, an exceptionally shot number that you never want to end. The most integral song is arguably We Love Each Other So Much, a haunting love ballad that slowly loses its romantic essence as the story unfolds. Every number progresses the story in odd and mesmerizing ways, guaranteeing that the Sparks will be remembered come awards season. The production design also deserves consideration, especially a waltz on a yacht that washes over the audience with beautiful torment.
Annette plays like a musical if David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman directed it. The Annette puppet even possesses echoes of the baby from Eraserhead or one of the figures from Anomalisa. With Annette, Carax has taken a step towards joining the same league as Lynch and Kaufman. Carax is truly in a league of his own, though, and Annette has all the makings of his masterpiece. The music will leave you with goosebumps, its atmosphere will send you into a dreamlike state, and the ending puts a gut-wrenching yet hopeful spin on what turns out to be a Pinocchio story.