After waiting decades, Sparks’ Ron and Russell Mael have finally made it to the big screen in a dazzle of grandeur and glory – not just as subjects of Edgar Wright’s joyous portrait The Sparks Brothers, but as co-writers and composers of a bizarre fantasy confection by elusive French director Leos Carax. Annette isn’t so much a musical as a piece of modern grand opera – a dark romance about a famed soprano (Marion Cotillard) and a tormented up-and-coming comedian (Adam Driver). Happiness seems to be theirs – but when their passion and pain erupt one stormy night at sea, Annette heads into the turbulent realms of high tragedy, with a streak of the supernatural.
Annette is full of flamboyant ambition, with unmistakeable shades of the hallucinatory strangeness of his last film, Holy Motors – notably in a beautiful scene where Cotillard steps from a theatre stage into a dark forest. But there’s also a great deal of overstatement (not one but two extended stage routines by Driver’s comedian, who really does have angst in his pants) and some out-and-out cinematic bombast.
Sparks fans hoping for the duo’s usual exuberance and dandyish wit may be disappointed by a score that shows their melodic invention only in flashes, the lyrical sharpness oddly muted. There’s a fabulous prelude featuring the Maels, Carax and assembled company, but the film never recaptures its brio. Cotillard is underused, while Driver’s agonised wild man shows this usually riveting actor disappointingly off-key. You won’t feel short-changed either for strikingly artificed images or for sheer eccentricity, but overall, Annette is an oddly joyless folly.