Sparks, the endearingly enduring pop duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have created a monumental body of work together for over 50 years, a sort of parallel history of contemporary pop music that exists both within and outside of the structures of genre, style, and stardom. Leos Carax has been operating in a parallel world as well, explicitly so, a master of creating tangible, physical images that are driven by his profoundly visual imagination. ANNETTE, their collaboration in the form of a cinematic opera, is an expression of these synonymous outsider visions, and the tension between the desire for acceptance and the embrace of rejection.
ANNETTE operates as a sort of narrative history of what I can only imagine is the tension at the heart of Sparks as an artistic project; the serious musical ambition and mastery of form that is embodied by Marion Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved soprano whose work in the opera brings her global renown, and the dark, confrontational comedy of Adam Driver’s Henry McHenry, who prowls the stage as a form of self-analysis and truth-telling that calls to mind Bo Burnham’s confessional storytelling mixed with Andrew Dice Clay’s intentional, absurdist bomb of a masterpiece THE DAY THE LAUGHTER DIED. The couple, united in love for one another, embody the paradox of mastery and humor, the embrace of the serious and the lowbrow that has both limited Sparks as a commercial project and has given them a profound and sustainable creative career.
Carax, whose films have consistently addressed the complex dance between love, personal integrity, and creativity, seems to be in familiar territory, having created wonderful musical sequences like the classic moment built around David Bowie’s MODERN LOVE in Carax’s 1986 MAUVAIS SANG, the incredible fireworks sequence from 1991’s THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE, or the thrilling, accordion mob cover version of LET MY BABY RIDE from 2012’s HOLY MOTORS.
With ANNETTE, however, Carax takes a different approach, seeming to transform the Mael’s ideas into a set of creative constraints. Carax’s touches are still there, primarily in Adam Driver’s performance, which seems to have taken on the physical requirements in Carax’s films that usually fall upon Denis Lavant, one of the most gifted physical actors of our generation. Here, though, Driver’s physicality is intentionally hemmed in by Carax, who frames the film far more theatrically than the anarchic naturalism we are used to, taking his cues from melodrama and classic cinema to create a more controlled world for his musical fairy tale.
The Maels seem to have also taken the film, which brilliantly lampoons the musical formalism of opera and modern musical theater, as a way to try something different. One of the great things about Sparks is that they use the conventions of pop music- form, length, instrumentation, style, genre- as a playground, infusing their music with humor (both lyrically and musically), repetition (think of BALLS or DICK AROUND), and stylistic wanderlust. But here too, outside of the film’s opening song SO MAY WE START, the Maels put aside expectations, instead sticking to the project, delivering music that relies on full orchestration and lyrical repetition, character themes and reprises; there is hardly a pop song in earshot, and barely a hint of the propulsive electronic instrumentation that shapes much of their best work.
Here, a quick * SPOILER ALERT* for those interested in seeing the film with fresh eyes (as I always say, it is impossible to talk about a film without talking about it):
But transformation through constraint seems to be precisely the point, and ANNETTE absolutely sticks the landing. In the film’s final sequence, Annette (to this point played by an intentionally artificial puppet) is transformed into real girl (played and sung beautifully by Devyn McDowell) and Driver’s Henry is also transformed into a stand-in for Leos Carax. In an inversion of the finale of PINOCCHIO, Annette becomes a real girl, not because she finally tells the truth, but because her creator does; Henry stops lying to himself at last through his rejection by his daughter. Long in denial of Annette’s full humanity, and seeing her now as a person and no longer as an extension of himself or Ann, he understands that he has created his own isolation all along. Here, the film’s slow moving evolution of Henry into a simulacrum of Carax himself— first the sunglasses, then the hat, and finally the hair, mustache, and world-weary eyes—arrives both visually and in the form of a song (which, for me, was the highlight of the film), a lament between the newly human child and the director’s Geppetto, who at last gets what he always wanted through the act of creation, only to remain in the prison of his own making, watching the only true thing he ever made carried away from him forever.