Thursday, August 5, 2021

His idea of funny many not be yours


     If you saw The Sparks Brothers, a documentary about the musical group created by Ron and Russell Mael, you may have been intrigued by the brothers’ art rock, cultish appeal -- not to mention their fascination with French cinema. The brothers wanted to make an art film and the documentary made you think they had the chops to do it -- albeit while adopting a witty sidelong perspective.
    Annette joins the Sparks Brothers (screenwriters and musical composers) with director Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Holy Motors) in what may amount to a wish-fulfilling project for the brothers.
     I wish I could say that Annette represents an unalloyed triumph but the film struck me as a curiosity full of memorably strange notes and a compelling performance by Adam Driver as Henry McHenry, an avant-garde comic who calls himself "The Ape of God."  
    Henry specializes in antagonizing audiences. Before a show, he dances in a hooded bathrobe in his dressing room, throwing punches at an imagery foe, evoking memories of Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull.
    I guess you'd call Annette a rock opera -- with nearly all of the dialogue sung to the driving rhythms of the Sparks Brothers, who appear briefly in the movie's opening scene. The beat, I'm afraid, proves more compelling than the lyrics.
   At its heart, Annette tells a story about lovers with clashing approaches to art and life. As is the case with many comics, McHenry talks about "killing" his audience. Ann (Marion Cotillard) talks about saving her audience. 
   An opera singer, Ann specializes in swooning death scenes and works with a loyal accompanist (Simon Helberg).
   We all know the cliche: Opposites attract: Henry and Ann soon find themselves in a relationship built around the musical number, We Love Each Other So Much, which takes an ironic turn as the story evolves.
    Henry, by far the dominant figure, and Ann begin their doomed marriage and Ann soon gives birth to baby Annette, represented by a wooden puppet with a strange, wide-eyed look that turns the child into an unsettling special effect.
    The careers of Henry and Ann begin to move in opposite directions. His starts to sink. Her's continues its rise. One night, she sees a newscast in six women accuse Henry of abusing them, never good news for any marriage.
    Baby Annette eventually takes over for her mother and begins a fabulous, if freakish singing career under her father's guidance.  She channels her mother's voice. 
      A story of love that kills and toxic ambition is supplemented by Carax's wildly creative approach to the movie's imagery, including a performance by baby Annette at the halftime of something the movie dubs the Hyper Bowl.
   Carax's first English-language movie, Annette takes 140 minutes to reach its conclusion -- too long, I think.   
   If you let it, though, this mix of creativity, morbidity, visual ranting, and anti-romance may make an impression, the kind that throws you off-kilter and leaves a sharp aftertaste.
    More than a movie, Annette is a wild eruption of creativity from voices (the Maels and Carax) so liberated they seem to have abandoned any form of self-censoring. 
    Annette is a difficult movie to leave behind after the end credits roll. But, hey, not every movie dealing with love needs to be sweet.

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