It Started with a (Musical) Misunderstanding

in 74th Cannes Film Festival

by Rolf Rüdiger Hamacher

Opening films at film festivals always follow their own laws: Above all, they should be a calling card of the upcoming programme, neither alienating the (usually invited) premiere audience nor the press. In order not to destroy this desired harmony right at the beginning, Cannes abolished the early press screenings a few years ago and now shows the film to journalists parallel to the official premiere.

Leos Carax’s monstrous silliness Annette benefited from this move on the one hand, but on the other hand one wondered: couldn’t Cannes have drawn on its full resources due to the film backlog caused by the pandemic – and the resulting festival cancellations and postponements?

But perhaps they also wanted to give a new chance to the “prodigal son” Leos Carax, who had only been invited to Cannes with his last film Holy Motors (2012) since he was awarded the “Prix de la Jeunesse” for his feature film debut Boy Meets Girl (1984). Especially because with Annette he has ventured into a genre that the French have always been fond of and that Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Jacques Demy and his regular composer Michel Legrand had ingeniously renewed in the 1960s-80s: the musical.

After his Pola X, which failed with audiences and the press in 1999, Carax had already dared to attempt to make his first English-language film – a comedic road musical – with Scars. But the financing failed because of the high production costs. Then he found two kindred spirits in Ron and Russell Mael, who founded the rock and pop band Sparks in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. The two brothers, who had tried their hand at a radio musical about cult director Ingmar Bergman (The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman) for Swedish Radio in 2009, thought it was time to follow in the musical footsteps of some pop stars like Elton John (Billy Elliot) and Sting (The Last Ship), who have since conquered Broadway. They probably also had a little eye on Stephen Sondheim, who is expressly thanked in the credits of Annette.

Carax, on the other hand, obviously had Jacques Demy’s only dark musical Un Chambre en Ville – the only one not composed by Michel Legrand (music by Michel Colombier) – on his mind. But this is where the crux of Annette begins and ends: neither Carax’s staging nor the Sparks compositions breathe the talent of a Jacques Demy, or a Stephen Sondheim, or Michel Colombier – and certainly not of a Michel Legrand.

And so the “overture” is also the oath of revelation for this ultimately unsuccessful experiment: Leos Carax himself sets off singing with his two composers from the recording studio into the streets of Los Angeles, where the two main actors join them. But since the staging concept does not include any choreography for the musical, the whole thing drags on as a merry trip – until Adam Driver gets on his motorbike and Marion Cotillard gets into her limousine to go to work. 

Driver plays Henry, a stand-up comedian prone to violence and alcohol, whose cynical humor always crosses the line into tastelessness. Cotillard is his wife Ann, who is a world-renowned opera singer. They love each other passionately, even though he is consumed by jealousy of her pianist and long-time friend (Simon Helberg). When Ann becomes pregnant, she gives birth to Annette, jointed doll who looks like a cross between Chucky and Pinocchio. Ann’s career continues to go uphill. Henry’s goes downhill, also because of #MeToo accusations. He gives himself over more and more to alcohol and, while drunk, causes Ann’s death during a boat trip on a stormy sea. From then on, Annette literally takes off, conquers the world with her mother’s divine voice – and happily becomes a real child.

Unfortunately, the word “timing” remains a foreign word for Carax, although editor Nelly Quettier tries desperately to get some momentum into the endlessly dragging story with her dynamic editing. But Sparks’ minimalist compositions, between romantic ballads and hard beats (which are sometimes sung during sex), rarely develop from the plot. They seem more like a revue of numbers, whose performers don’t exactly prove to have an affinity for musicals either.

Above all, Adam Driver, who does not act elegantly and is rather unsympathetic in his role, does not want to fit into this genre at all, which Carax pushes with #MeToo and star cult references that are more embarrassing than enlightening. And when you finally leave the cinema without having a song in your ears, Carax’s intention to add new stimuli to the genre comes to nothing.

However, this did not prevent the obviously cineastically overtaxed jury from awarding Leos Carax the directing prize (and Titane the “Golden Palm”!) and thus plunging the festival into an even greater crisis than the pandemic had already done.

Rolf Rüdiger Hamacher
Edited by Robert Horton