How best to describe the film, Annette? Well, aside from superlatives – or adjectives, depending on how you look at them – like singular and esoteric, providing a vignette of a film that seems to actively defy them proves rather difficult. There is, in fact, no more accurate way to put it, than to say that it is a Sparks film at heart. Filled with madness and magic, it encapsulates them.
With that in mind, how would they put it? “I think it’s always been inherent with what we do that we like coming from a special place and doing something that you really do think is unique,” Russell Mael obscurely explains to me. “With a movie musical in this day and age we feel that there are ways to do it that are not cliched and not reliant on past forms.”
Continuing: “So, stylistically too with Annette, from one scene to another the music may not be consistent stylistically so it has different tones and styles throughout the movie. I think that was something that both we and also Leos Carax, the director, liked. He is a fan of Sparks and so he is aware of our chameleon-like style, and we can shift from different styles from one song to another or one scene to another. I think that adds to the feel of not really knowing where this film was coming from.”
With that notion of still not really knowing where the film is coming from, let us try to shoehorn in some sort of synopsis for you… Adam Driver, the emotional centre of the unspooling fantasia, plays an alternative comedian who sports a dog-eared green dressing gown, laden with the sort of teenage angst that has spilt over into dower masculine turmoil. Alas, he has a foil in Marion Cotillard, who joins acting’s meta-verse by playing a renowned thespian in the alternate world of Annette, and they “love each other so much”.
They have a child who bears the titular name, Annette, and has spectacular performative skills of her own. The Sparks twist to this family drama, of course, is that, in a move that is never explained nor referenced, the daughter is a marionette. And her spectacular performative skills come in the form of gravity-defying lullabies that ensnare the world with awe-struck wonder. The allure of her mumbling tune is only really comparable to Jigglypuff of Pokémon — such a reference, naturally, will only resonate with a very marginal generation, but Annette is a film that leads you down ever-increasingly esoteric avenues. In fact, it is a film that almost seems devoid of influence from anywhere.
“We’ll take that as a compliment,” Russell exclaims, and rightly so in this highly derivative movie climate of prequels, sequels and seen-it-all-before’s. “Obviously, we have influences, but in the end doing something that is really bold and special is what we were trying to do,” Russell asserts. At which point Ron Mael chimes in, “One film that I think was an influence, and not so much specifically musically style-wise but just the idea of it was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg where it is completely sung through the whole film and really the same mundane situations are done in the same way that the really emotional scenes were done.”
When the only touchstone for the film is the 1964 Jacques Demy film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, you get a whiff of the sort of singularity we’re dealing with here. But the comparison does prove to be a vital one when it comes to the method of the film—it is a musical in the true sense of the word, almost all of the script is sung, and not in some wild performative way either, rather it unfurls like an album that has impregnated a script. In doing so, the Sparks really do unluck what a musical in the modern age can be, while it might seem manic at times, it transfigures what would be moments of relative mundanity with banality-eviscerating mayhem. What could be bolder or more Sparks-esque than that!
Well, perhaps going into a front-to-back musical without being fully aware of the vocal abilities of the cast could be bolder than that. “We didn’t know specifically about Adam Driver’s singing beforehand,” Russell declares in a blasé fashion when embarking on a debut venture into two hours of solid song. “But then we later learned he was a Juilliard graduate,” he adds in a fortunate stroke of fate, “so he does have a musical background.”
Continuing: “He was really able to do the singing at the same time as his amazing acting. We were just so surprised at how he kind of threw himself into this thing of singing on top of that abrasive character that he is throughout the film, so we were pleasantly surprised because for eight years,” which is how long Sparks had been working on Annette, “we had just heard my voice doing what Adam Driver eventually took on. He went beyond something that we even thought that he could do.”
With Marion Cotillard, things were a little more straightforward. She had already provided one of the greatest performances of the century so far – or the greatest if you take George Clooney’s word for it – in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose. Throughout the film, her unique performative skills make for some incredible cinematic sequences of a truly eerie quality, as though a siren has entered a cheese-dream. “Her singing is really good,” Russell opines. “All of the pop pieces she did all the singing live and only with some of the operatic singing was her voice melded together with an opera singer, but she was really capable and did a really great job. And at the request of Leos, all of the singers do it live. She really pulled it off.”
Constantly singing live in a film that is equally demanding in an acting capacity is one hell of a thing to ask two stars at the peak of their powers to get involved with. Annette is a project that undoubtedly required unity. It is so singular that had the vision not been shared, it would have ended up being a paradigm of the old parable that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Thus, a little over eight years might seem like a long time to spend with a film, but in this regard, it was almost vital. Even two years ago they were already chatting with Adam Driver, “Discussing the stylistic tone of the singing and that it would be done in a naturalistic, as opposed to a sort of overblown Broadway style of singing. Adam was really on the same page with that”.
Everyone involved seemed to be on the same page throughout. Whilst it is Sparks debut feature, this cohesion is perhaps testimony to 50 years in the arts. Often times it seems like originality is strived for, with Sparks, however, nothing ever seems contrived or without sincerity: they are, in fact, just two very weird folks, and what a wonderful world it proves to be that so many people are willing to clamber aboard for the wild ride, blazing past pastures of same-old and jejune square commercialism.
As Ron muses: “I think that everybody was attracted to the original structure of the film because it is hard to place. I think everyone wants challenges in the same way that we do, so not really knowing where this fit was kind of intriguing for them and enticing for them to come in.” This is true, and the same can be said for the audience. It is, indeed, a challenging film. It does not sit easily with a Sunday morning or the first date crowd. But it is a beast that proves all-encompassing.
As Ron adds: “Sometimes people bring up the sociological elements that are in the film in terms of toxic masculinity and all those sorts of things. All of that is there, but when we start a project we don’t start from, ‘Let’s write a musical about all these issues,’ we are always just trying to do a cool musical piece. From our perspective, if something is making a particular statement, it is hard for it to have any resonance after that. We see all of those issues that are within the film but that wasn’t the original impetus behind actually writing it. It was just to do a cool movie musical piece and we’re just thrilled that works on that level.”
Indeed, it does work on that level. The film is a colourful expression of the Sparks brothers’ minds made visual. Everyone soars, not just levitating marionettes, in this regard. The emotive performances add depth to what could otherwise seem kitsch, Carax’s expressionist visuals bring allure and magic to what could be mayhem and maddening, and Sparks themselves, of course, bring their epically sui generis songs.
The film itself is a triumph of unfettered creativity. It relishes in the joy of its own singularity, in the thrill of being nonchalantly divisive. After all, the Sparks have always thrived on the mantra that it is better to be loved by a few than liked by many, and yet, they have attracted a legion of fans wherever the venture all the same. That is true of the manic magical Annette too. Whether you end up loving the film or not, this element of celebrating artistry without a thought of reception imbues the film with a vitality that so few pictures offer currently, and that is forever worth celebrating.
You can witness the fantastical film on MUBI in the UK and Ireland from November 26. You can catch a 30 day free trial on us by clicking this link.