I’m not that familiar with the music of Sparks but what little I’ve heard of them always made me assume they were an upbeat pop band with a dry and quirky sense of humour. However, either my assumptions were totally wrong or I’ve completely misread them as their film ‘Annette’ (2021), directed by Leos Carax, is neither upbeat nor humourous. Tedious, repetitive and grating? Oh, absolutely. Good god, I couldn’t stand this movie.
Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, an abrasive stand up comic going by the name The Ape of God. Marion Cotilliard is Ann, a successful opera singer who likes eating apples. The two fall in love, have a child called Annette only for professional and personal issues to then come between the loving couple. Henry is accused of sexual misconduct by several women and an affair from Ann’s past rears its head meaning Annette is going to have a rather unconventional upbringing. Although considering Annette is actually a puppet she’s not quite a conventional child anyway.
So ‘Annette’ is a sort of mash-up of Bluebeard’s Castle, ‘A Star is Born’, Pinocchio and the career of Louis C.K. as the film deals with murderous spouses in an operatic setting, career jealousy, the struggle for identity, toxic masculinity and the public shaming of an obnoxious stand up comedian but goes on to do NOTHING with any of these themes in the slightest.
Take Adam Driver’s Henry. He’s a clichéd example of the self-absorbed, nihilistic, attention seeking male asshole. The only problem is we are told all this at the very beginning and considering his character doesn’t go on any form of an arc, learning experience or development then all we’re doing is watching an asshole be an asshole for two and a half hours… whilst singing. How he ends up at the end is, pretty much, how we saw him at the start. But it’s not just Henry that’s the problem as there are many ideas (and references) in ‘Annette’ all tumbled together but almost everything feels underdeveloped, as though their very existence is justification enough for their presence. Exploration isn’t necessary and the result is grating.
Although not as grating as the music which was, in my opinion, borderline unlistenable. I’m aware that Sparks have a love, and knack, for building a song out of a simple repeating sentence or refrain, such as with their song ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’. That’s fine for a 3 minute pop song that everyone can sing along to but it’s an awful strategy to construct a full-scale musical around. The most highly irritating example in ‘Annette’ is when Henry and Ann repeatedly sing to each other the sentence ‘We love each other so much’ for over three minutes straight but which feels like a fucking eternity. This isn’t an ear-worm; it’s just a worm and I hated the way it felt as it crawled in.
‘Annette’ is dedicated to, amongst others, Stephen Sondheim which makes sense in a way as Sparks’ music here, like Sondheim’s, often bears the influence of Minimalism. But whereas Sondheim knew that it was pulse that powered the repetition in Minimalism Sparks have simply lifted the repetition wholesale, sans the pulse, and done nothing with it meaning the score to ‘Annette’ lacks any rhythmic nuance, variation or layering and, hence, no propulsion.
Similarly this is also a melody free zone. Yes, there are some refrains here that might stick in your head but that’s purely because they’ve been violently hammered into your cerebral cortex by brute force alone over the course of two and a half hours rather than through any melodic irresistibility or seduction.
So we have a musical with unlikable characters, an unengaging plot, a grocery wish-list of cinematic references, a bloated and indulgent run time, a listless narrative, grating music and a bucket load of pretention. Christ.
Not that it’s all bad. There are a couple of touching moments although I can’t quite recall what they were so I could just be experience a brief burst of involuntary tolerance here. Carax provides some nice visuals and the lighting is expertly handled but everything else simply drags the entire movie under. And don’t even talk to me about the pacing and structure (but both are insufferably bad).
I really didn’t like ‘Annette’, finding it a truly boring, tedious, irritating, embarrassing, toe-curling endurance test to sit through… and that was what I was LEAST expecting from a musical by Sparks. Although it is funny that the Mael Brothers said they always wanted to make a feature film and star in a movie that was superior to the disaster flick ‘Rollercoaster’ (1977) they appeared in. I think this explains a lot because for all their references to Godard, the Nouvelle Vague, Tati and “highbrow” cinema etc the Maels missed something very important — and that’s ‘Rollercoaster’s a great little film. ‘Annette’ has the feeling it was written by people, blinded by their own pretence, who failed to notice this vitally important piece of information.