February 4, 2022


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By: Hannah Strong

When I was about 13, my grandmother took me to the opera for the first time. We went to see ‘Carmen’. I fell asleep fairly early on and only woke up when the flamenco dancing started. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience, and this instigated a pattern over the years whereby my grandma would take me to see all her favourite shows: ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘La bohème’, ‘La traviata’. I was frequently baffled, often enraptured. And so it goes for Leos Carax’s Annette.

Anyone familiar with the music of Ron and Russell Mael (aka the genre-defying musical duo Sparks) knows they have little interest in what the Public At Large wants, or indeed likes. Their five decades in the business have produced 25 studio albums, a radio opera about Ingmar Bergman, and an unproduced Jacques Tati film to name just a few highlights. They are something of an acquired taste, which makes them a perfect fit for Carax’s surrealist sensibilities, not to mention the envelope-pushing interests of Hollywood’s great hope, Adam Driver.

The story goes as so: Henry McHenry (Driver), motorcycle-riding bad boy stand-up comedian, is madly in love with Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a revered soprano. Their whirlwind romance results in a marriage and a gifted daughter – named Annette – but Henry’s jealousy and inability to let love overrule his deep-seated self-loathing spells impending doom.

Annette has been described somewhat inaccurately as a musical, but eschews the Broadway tradition of catchy songs and carefully choreographed dance routines. In true Sparks style, it’s an ambitious, audacious rock opera, complete with much-feted musical cunnilingus and an enchantingly off putting marionette. It’s sprawling and self-indulgent and completely bizarre. It is quite possibly a masterpiece.

Driver’s performance is one of full-bodied enthusiasm and physicality, channelling the spirit of Denis Lavant in Carax’s 1991 film The Lovers on the Bridge. His gravelly voice and commanding screen presence are compelling enough to forgive the narrative transgressions (a strange nod to #MeToo probably should have stayed in the writer’s room). Cotillard proves the perfect foil as a woman betrayed by love in the classic operatic tradition. The role was initially attached to Rooney Mara and then Michelle Williams, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Ann with such a clear sense of tragic naivety.

Annette won’t be for everyone, yet it’s hard to argue against the ambition and originality of this outrageous love story. Although the film draws from the history of cinema and musicals and calls to mind all manner of other media, it manages to feel entirely unique – earnest and honest and just a little pretentious. As a singular artistic vision about toxic, self-loathing men, bad parenting and the grotesque, all-consuming theatre of performance, Annette is a triumph.

What a joy to live at the same time as artists who are willing to plunge themselves headfirst into the creative abyss and let us bear witness from the stands, fidgeting nervously as we long for an encore.


French maverick Carax makes his long-awaited return to cinema after 2012’s Holy Motors.


A disorientating, singular vision of peerless creativity.


Vive le cinéma, vive la différence!


Directed by

Leos Carax


Adam Driver,

Marion Cotillard,

Simon Helberg

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