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Annette review – Leos Carax’s bonkers but beautiful musical fantasy | Musicals

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Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century tale The Adventures of Pinocchio has cast a long shadow over cinema, inspiring everything from a 1911 Italian live-action silent to Matteo Garrone’s 2019 Pinocchio, via such diverse fare as Disney’s 1940 animation and Spielberg’s futuristic 2001 sci-fi AI: Artificial Intelligence. A Guillermo del Toro stop-motion adaptation is also forthcoming. In the meantime we have this tragicomic musical fantasy from Cannes best director winner Leos Carax and American pop maestros Sparks, in which a starry cast is augmented – and arguably upstaged – by a puppet in the title role.

With a rise-and-fall nod towards A Star Is Born, Annette follows the operatic misfortunes of dyspeptic comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and beloved soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a couple whose celebrity marriage provokes a media frenzy. Henry (whose Ape of God act plays like a cross between Bill Hicks and Steven Wright) became a comedian “to tell the truth without getting killed”; Ann is “always dying” in theatrically staged romantic encounters. Together, the couple produce life in the figure of baby Annette – brilliantly portrayed through puppetry (plaudits to Estelle Charlier and Romuald Collinet), presenting an artificial yet eerily lifelike embodiment of their union.

Adam Driver’s Henry and his puppet daughter in Annette.
Adam Driver’s Henry and his puppet daughter in Annette. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

The family’s life (captured in cartoonish “Showbizz News” bites) seems precipitous from the start. When Henry and Ann find themselves all at sea and tragedy strikes, Annette magically inherits her mother’s voice, a haunting reminder of her bad father’s most guilty secret. Yet in this horror-inflected celebrity world (Franju’s Eyes Without a Face once again looms large) even a ghostly wraith can become a media sensation, and Henry soon realises that he can monetise his monsters, finding a way back into the public’s heart – and pockets.

With book and music by Ron and Russell Mael, Annette feels like the culmination of several unmade Sparks cinematic projects, blending the comic absurdity of Jacques Tati (in whose unrealised Confusion the brothers were once set to play TV executives) with the gothically inspired visual invention of Tim Burton (with whom they hoped to collaborate on an adaptation of the Japanese manga Mai, the Psychic Girl). Yet it’s hard to imagine any director other than the reliably unruly Leos Carax having the chutzpah to pull off such an audaciously bonkers project without postmodern mockery or sneering cynicism. Yes, Annette is an extravagantly ridiculous affair, a pop opera (like Ken Russell’s Tommy, with a touch of Julien Temple’s The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle), shot through with the wry humour that has always characterised the Mael brothers’ music. Yet at the heart of its swirling strangeness lies something of real truth and beauty that left me unexpectedly crying at the sight of a marionette levitating above a vast crowd, operatically warbling her fairytale lament.

From its opening demand for the audience’s total attention (“Breathing will not be tolerated,” Carax announces), Annette plays with theatrical form, with the earworm curtain-raiser So May We Start moving from studio to street in an elaborately choreographed deconstruction of the musical film genre. There are touches of Canadian director Guy Maddin’s oddball oeuvre in Carax’s use of superimposition and stylised backgrounds, as if the film were looking back through the prism of silent cinema to its roots in music hall and vaudeville. Bold colours abound (cinematographer Caroline Champetier revels in the avaricious greens and optimistic yellows of Henry and Ann’s characters), complementing both the metronomy of the songs and the archetypal nature of the characters, several of whom (such as Simon Helberg’s Accompanist/Conductor) remain pointedly unnamed.

Cynics will find plenty to test their patience, mistaking unironic refrains of “We love each other so much” as arch tomfoolery, particularly before the emotional punches really kick in around the midway mark. But no one goes to see a film by Leos Carax, whose feature output has been scant since 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, expecting tightly wound narratives. Indeed, by comparison with 1999’s Pola X and 2012’s Holy Motors, Annette (which Carax tenderly dedicates to his daughter Nastya) is surprisingly accessible fare: adventurous, anarchic and unexpectedly heartfelt.

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The Groucho

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