Archive for September 11, 2021

They Call It Puppet Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2021 by dcairns

We enjoyed ANNETTE, with reservations.

I certainly liked it better than the last arthouse musical I can recall seeing, DANCER IN THE DARK. Though it has a slight echo of Von Trier, in its literal-mindedness. The characters sing a song to say the show is starting. They sing a song about how much they’re in love. They sing a song saying they hope we enjoyed the show. And the dialogue/lyrics often have a slightly leaden, awkward quality, as if written by someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language. But the Mael brothers, who wrote it, are American, so is it purely director Leos Carax’s influence making strange, or just the fact that they’re not experienced screenwriters? Probably the latter.

The Maels have written an opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and they were UCLA film students, so this isn’t all completely new to them. They also scored a Jean-Claude Van Damme action film, KNOCK-OFF. And some of the clunk has charm, particularly the intro and outro songs (stay through the end credits).

As the film got off to its slow start, I wondered if it had been really wise to make the protagonist/anti-hero (Adam Driver) a stand-up comedian. We get quite a lengthy set from him, and what I was wondering all through it was, Is this meant to be funny? It wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t — arguably the idea is to satirise edgy stand-up — the problem is the tone and intent aren’t clear. There’s a second routine, later in the story, which flops with the audience and is therefore easier to take — this is NOT meant to be funny, but it does contain some terrific stagecraft: Driver, speaking of death, lies flat on the stage, cruciform, laying his mic on his chest, and we hear his heartbeat. Stuff like that.

Anyway the first act felt LOOONG but there are some lovely visuals, mostly associated with Marion Cotillard’s character’s career as an opera singer. A scene of Driver driving and being tormented by visions from various operas kicks things up several notches. And it’s amusing how, in this film, characters sing while having sex, going to the toilet, giving birth. Then Driver’s character starts shedding all claims on our sympathy, and the plot runs through echoes of the Natalie Wood story and The Tell-Tale Heart (Carax thanks E.A. Poe in the end credits, but spells his name “Edgard” — in a way, that kind of idiosyncratic mistake is cheering in today’s era of machine-tooled cinema).

Sparks/the Maels are expressive and quirky lyricists, but not here. I’m guessing the pressure of having to create songs tied to a narrative has constrained their invention. But then why did the moments that seemed most plotty — the birth scene, and the police interrogation, for instance, give me the most musical pleasure? I think it’s because they each involve a little crowd of additional characters — so they bring in some exciting harmonies, and they don’t depend on Driver’s voice. Driver can sing, and he can sing emotionally — he really gives a dramatic performance while singing, which a lot of better singers can’t do, but his limited strength stops the music taking flight. On the other hand, he’s also a producer on the film and it’s doubtful we would have it if not for his input.

I don’t want to sound too down on the film — visually and musically, if not so much lyrically, it’s often extraordinary. And I enjoyed being back at Filmhouse. Didn’t enjoy the subtitles for the hard of hearing and couldn’t work out why they were there (are a lot of deaf people seeing this musical? If it was felt the lyrics needed help, OK I guess, but the sound effects didn’t need help).

Cotillard is strong, but the best perfs are Simon Helberg and singing sprog Devyn McDowall, a real prodigy. Of course they have the benefit of not having to carry the whole film, they breeze in like pint-sized breaths of fresh air, and in a film that’s almost entirely sung, you really need all the oxygen you can get.

See it, maybe not expecting perfection, and you should get something of value out of it.