Sparks' Songs for 'Annette' Bring the Best Out of Their Collaborators

Directed by Leos Carax

Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard

BY James BrotheridgePublished Aug 13, 2021

Discussions on autofiction resurface periodically, though not as often as "sex scenes are superfluous" discourse takes hold. Annette, the latest from French director Leos Carax, has something to say about the origins of art and applications of experience. It's up to audiences to determine the value of fiction with any hint of autobiography — to measure the creativity when an author or filmmaker processes the events of their lives in ways that might not be apparent to the audience.

Carax's work resists one-to-one links between biography and the work. (Unless I've missed stories of him chewing Eva Mendez's hair that inspired that 2012's Holy Motors.) The question is one this oddball pop musical investigates: how does the artist speak to the art, and vice versa?

The film begins with a romance between two artists. Henry (Adam Driver) is a comedian who comes pre-curdled, his disillusionment part of the act. (His current stage show is named Ape of God, a walk no matter how you interpret it.) He understands the triggers for laughter beyond the meaning of his words — the moments when the audience will grab whatever release they can get. It's represented here by a call and unified response between standup and audience, scripted for both sides. For this, he can't hide his contempt and can only dress it as a creative choice.

He's in a whirlwind, sexually tempestuous relationship with opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard). Her beauty is inevitably tragic — a montage features her many costumes and swanning deaths.

Ann's work infects her worldview, as she can only imagine an awful end. Henry, in turn, indulges his acerbic worldview to its darkest, most destructive tendencies. Nothing is fixed by the arrival of a daughter, Annette, performed entirely with a marionette edging between beautiful and maudlin.

The scene is set with a moment akin to an orchestra warming up in a rock'n'roll studio before they launch into the first song, written and here performed by Sparks. The brothers, recently documented in the Edgar Wright movie The Sparks Brothers, wrote the story and all the songs for Annette. The humour and perspective of their work seems well-matched in Carax, especially in moments obligatory to the plot.

They're also working in a vocal range that doesn't tax Driver or Cotillard, neither of whom are threatening to jump into a production of Oklahoma! coming off this movie. But then, them being capital-e Entertainers isn't the kind of musical this is. Cotillard needs to be haunted and haunting, and is. The film is exploring unique territory for a tortured-artist story in Driver, and the actor finds it well.

Carax plays with big themes, driven to extremes. Cotillard is often seen eating bright red apples, recalling Eve and original sin, whereas Driver has a birthmark that grows and darkens, a deepening mark that can't be erased. The lines are pushed so far to find different angles on creativity, living inside and outside of the artist. Watching it take form and processing it is a journey in and of itself. Like with everything Carax does, there's enough to hold the audience's attention no matter what.

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