Annette ★★★★★

“So, may we start?” filmmaker Leos Carax asks Ron and Russell Mael at the opening of their new musical Annette. The duo, known best as Sparks, then proceeds to introduce the audience, through song, to the film they’re about to watch. What they offer is no mere overture but an active deconstruction of the film they’ve made, with the Maels (joined later by stars Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, as well as a chorus) playfully singing about everything from their vanity and the theatrical experience to explaining their performers will “sing and die for you, yes in minor key.”

Many recent musicals have tried to ground themselves in realism or history itself, rarely breaking away to indulge in spectacle and never commenting on their approach to storytelling. Carax and Sparks, by contrast, aim to expose the artifice inherent in their production. The stripped-down vocalization and staging of Kylie Minogue’s song in Holy Motors is no more, with the maximalist moods and minimalist lyrics of the Maels creating something deliciously heightened. Everything in their film is designed to remind the audience that their characters exist within a production; the stage is the world itself (or vice-versa, its lyrics challenge), and every act is shot through with a certain theatricality that transforms that realism into something impressionistic. That sensibility is built into the very nature of the film’s premise: a glimpse into the lives of Henry, a provocative comedian, and Ann, the world-class soprano he loves, before and after the birth of their daughter Annette. Henry and Ann’s performances are attuned to a certain level of vice and virtue, the characters less fully fleshed-out human beings than archetypes in service of emotional storytelling.

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