Greetings again from the darkness. The anticipation of seeing a film directed by Leos Carax (HOLY MOTORS, 2012), and written and scored by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks fame, is derived from expecting the unexpected … experiencing something we’ve never before experienced cinematically. And although the film is likely to be quite divisive – beloved by some, dismissed by others, confusing for all – the ingenuity, creativity, and risk-taking are quite something to behold. As for the narrative coherence? Well that’s quite a different topic.
A mere six weeks ago I watched and reviewed Edgar Wright’s excellent documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, where Ron and Russell discussed their affinity and vision for movies, despite a few near misses over the years. This particular material was originally conceived as a rock opera album, and it’s probable that very few directors would even attempt the transition to the big screen. It would be equally challenging as an opera, a play, or a stage musical. In simple terms, this is a musical-drama-romance; however in reality, it’s confoundingly difficult to define or describe.
The opening sequence begins in a recording studio with director Carax at the sound board as the Sparks band performs “So May We Start?” Soon they are marching the streets of Santa Monica, joined in singing the song by the lead actors of the movie we are about to watch. The narrator tells us, “Breathing will not be tolerated”, which takes on a touch of irony during a pandemic.
Adam Driver stars as Henry, an offbeat stand-up comedian, and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as Ann, a popular opera singer. Henry bills himself as ‘The Ape of God’ and performs an abrasive comedy act that is interactive with his audience. He psyches up for each performance by shadow-boxing in a robe while puffing on a cigarette. Ann is often shown alone on stage (Catherine Trottman sings the opera parts, while Ms. Cotillard sings the rest). The couple is engaged when we open, and they later marry, have a child (the titular Annette), and take different approaches to their career. Henry and Ann are polar opposites and that’s best exemplified by how they end their respective shows: he ‘moons’ his audience, while she gracefully bows in appreciation.
Henry is a man filled with love, yet clueless on how to love. He’s a tortured soul – the kind that doesn’t believe he deserves the life he has and finds a way to self-destruct. Henry and Ann are passionate lovers and their duet “We Love Each Other So Much” has the most unusual timing that you’ll see in a musical; in fact, the musical interludes (with repeating lyrics) often arise at the most inopportune (or at least unexpected) moments. Ms. Cotillard’s talents are never fully utilized, while much of the film’s weight is carried by Mr. Driver.
After tragedy strikes, the story becomes quite bizarre with Henry and “Baby Annette”. To say more would spoil that which should remain surprising. Simon Helberg’s role as conductor increases in the second half, and his character’s past with Ann lends itself to the complexity of relationships. This is a dark love story, and one that befuddles right up to the end. Director Carax and the Mael brothers could slide into the Avant-garde corner, but that might scare off even more potential viewers, so let’s use ‘fantastical’ instead. Sometimes it tries a bit too hard to shock or agitate, and the stories are a bit discordant, but it’s all for a good cause: provocation. The film, dedicated to Carax’s daughter Nastya (who appears in the opening sequence), sometimes feels like the wild nightmares that you (mostly) don’t want to end. And that’s about all that should be said to preserve the experience.
This Musical opens in theaters on August 6, 2021 and on Amazon Prime Video on August 20, 2021