Written by Cassie Jo Ochoa
The decision to start a musical with an overture, such as what begins Annette, is always a dicey one. On the one hand, allowing audiences to get accustomed to the music they’ll be investing two hours in, especially a band as eclectic as Sparks, helps puts minds at ease and allows moviegoers to remember that musicals are meant to hold a funhouse mirror to human existence. On the other hand, an audience is liable to be introduced to all its tricks upfront; here are the good looking stars who in minutes will soon be strangers, there are the musicians who you’ll recognize later on in the background, don’t get too comfortable as the spectator is part of the show. Sparks’ decision to forgo traditional musical and opera trends and have the plot be recited as songs rather than be insights into the characters proves to be a crippling one. Ample time is spent with these characters, but exploring their inner world is held exclusively in the briefest of glances. In contrast, moments, when the characters talk about themselves tend to give the sensation that rock operas shouldn’t be filmed line by line.
On a technical level, Annette is a mixed bag. The acting is about what you expect of performers of this caliber. The singing is adequate as live singing can be – it isn’t unpleasant, but the rawness of the vocals does give a certain charm to it. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard sell the hell out of archetypes who spend more time singing about their love for another than actually appearing in love. Driver gets more screen time as the brutish comedian who confronts his audience more than he makes them laugh, spending an agonizing segment of the film establishing why his moniker is “The Ape of God.” Cotillard’s Ann gets the shorter end of the stick as the opera star on the rise who will one day give birth to Annette’s blessing. Oddly enough, Simon Helberg is the sole surprise of the movie as Ann’s accompanist, only known as The Conductor. He is meant to be the antithesis to Driver’s Henry McHenry – the type of man designed to lift his partner to the spotlight, not wrestle it from their control. Helberg is the only one who is given enough nuance to transcend his archetype, and his performance is one of the film’s highlights.
The cinematography is also a bit baffling, but not in the way it’s expected with a visionary director like Leo Carax. The visuals seem like a compromise; the film’s first act feels restrained, while in the second, it feels like it cannot truly break out of its shell. The best example of this is in the titular character, who is portrayed by a doll. In the first act, Annette is the weirdest thing about the film, as she’s portrayed with just enough human elements that as she ages, it’s easy to laugh at how uncomfortable it is to look at this “gift from God.” When her face is seen in the background in family photos, it’s an immediate eye-catcher to almost a distracting level, and that’s saying nothing of when the baby learns how to move. In the second act of the film, Annette legitimately levitates, and laughter no longer sits in the back of your throat, as the world has finally shifted just enough to match her weirdness. It shouldn’t surprise that the second act is where the film holds together the strongest, as the film has finally done away with explaining the past and runs full steam to the climax.