Film review: SPARKS: Annette / Cannes Festival Opening – The Vox, Montignac-Lascaux, SW France 6 July 2021

Sparks - Annette

It’s early evening in heart of Montignac-Lascaux, a small sleepy South West French town. And I’ve just discovered that the once thriving (pre-covid) art house cinema – which used to double as an outdoor gig – is showing a world premier of the new Sparks film called ‘Annette’.

Having done a double take and stepped inside, I find they are also beaming the opening to the 74th Cannes Film Festival on the big screen and so I think twice about leaving.

But having being suckered in by the lure of the red carpet, I stick with it long enough to silently shout out to the screen: “ooh look there’s the Mael Brothers, and wow Spike Lee.”

But enough is enough. I wander outside only to be confronted by 4 trestle tables full of assorted red and white wines and boundless nosh.

So I think to myself, so this is what happens at world premier film launches!

I’d venture 80% of the crowd who follow me outside to the drinks table are women. I’m not sure what this says about either the cinema’s regular patrons in general, or Sparks fans in particular.

No matter, there is wine to be quaffed and food to be digested, and once the fuzzy glow kicks in, a film to be watched.

And as the movie opens with the Mael brothers launching themselves into the first of two on screen cameos with a catchy ditty called “So May We Start,” things look promising.

However, a problem slowly unfolds. An incredibly dense interwoven rock-opera style narrative in operetta form comes to dominate a B movie style noir film.

The script is based round the clever idea of a high profile, mutually destructive couple.  He is an alt. stand-up comic and she an opera singer on a one way collision course.

They have a daughter, who is the ‘Annette’ of the film title, initially portrayed as living doll, before belatedly metamorphosing into a young child.

The film teeters on the brink of a slow descent, except the dark narrative is counterweighted by fast moving songs with machine gun style hooks, which give the long 140 minute movie a welcome shot in the arm.

Truth be told, when it comes to film making, the Mael brothers obviously know their limitations, as evidenced by the smart move to team up with the enfant terrible of French cinema Leos Carax.

The fact that he is as left field as them makes for something of a lopsided movie. The imbalance is rescued by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard who despite not being pro singers fill the screen with a mix of passionate and surprisingly rich timbres.

And unfettered passion is what lies at the heart of Sparks music. There’s always been a startling contrast between the static figure of the keyboard playing elder brother Ron, who arranges the music, and the younger effervescent Russell, who sings and pens the evocative lyrics.

And if the film feels a bit cumbersome, Russell enjoys a lyrical triumph on songs such as the heartfelt and almost creepy “We Love Each Other So Much” and the portentous ‘I’m An Accompanist’, sung in character by Simon Helberg.

Then there’s the comedic ‘She’s Out Of This World’, the raucous call and response of  ‘You Used To Laugh’ – delivered by Driver in a Nick Cave style baritone – and the contrasting elegance of ‘Stepping Back In Time’.

The closing ‘Sympathy For The Abyss’ is a feverish, but poignant duet between Driver and child actor Devyn McDowell. It features the kind of string arrangement that gives the film a suitably emotive denouement.

I’ve never been a fan of musicals, let alone rock opera, but the Spark’s soundtrack undoubtedly carries the movie. It ebbs and flows to coherently frame the narrative, even if the contrast between the more bubbly songs and rather pedestrian story line sometimes feel incongruous.

Apparently the whole project was originally conceived as an album and you can never quite escape that feeling, especially given the film’s length.

Still, as always, Sparks have created challenging and thoughtful art, while director Leos Carax amplifies the kind of surreal moments that tonight extended from the film to real life.   ****

Review by Pete Feenstra


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