The musical groove of Amazon Studios’ “Annette” has landed within the confines of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. While the terms “strange” and “quirky” will be understatements used to describe the operatic musical, it’s the type of eclectic and artistically charged cinematic endeavor that has always brought a cinephile to the movies, and one that could appeal to the European voting arm of the Academy Awards in multiple artisan categories, and attainably major recognition for Simon Helberg in supporting actor. Contingent on how the rest of the dense and packed year shakes out from other studios, there could be a prospect for its top-billed stars, and perhaps even a best picture nomination play. Still, it will require an ardent and vocal base within the Oscar ranks to get this kind of peculiar object through the awards machine.
“Annette” tells the story of stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and soprano singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a couple whose glamorous life takes a turn when their daughter Annette is born, who has a secret but unique gift. From Leos Carax, the visionary French filmmaker behind the BAFTA-nominated “The Lovers on the Bridge” and the critically acclaimed “Holy Motors,” it’s an exercise in how auteur an auteur can be.
The long road for Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the pop and rock duo Sparks, was well examined in Edgar Wright’s vivacious documentary “The Sparks Brothers” from Focus Features, which opened in June. Understanding the bold vision that the musicians have toward their art and being familiar with their attempt to make the Japanese manga “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a musical with Tim Burton in the late 1980s will offer a much needed starting point when walking into “Annette.” How many new and younger members will know Sparks and be on board with their view on love and music? It’s a hard question to decipher, but if there’s an audience that can start them off right, it’s Cannes.
The easiest road for recognition will be within the music branch, particularly for original song. The opening number, “So May We Start,” which channels the energetic beginning of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), could be the track with the best shot at broad support with composers and songwriters. Its compositional framework and catchy melody have the goods to appeal to the many anticipated dissenters. Meanwhile, “Sympathy for the Abyss” presents a raw and heartbreaking interpretation that cinephiles love to see in movie musicals. Because it also stitches the narrative mysteries the viewer embarks upon, there may be more appreciation from voting members on what it represents and its payoff. Depending on which and how many songs Amazon chooses to submit for awards (the Oscars announced a five-song limit moving forward), we’ll see if they cast a wider net or streamline its resources.
“Annette” examines the complexities of fame in Hollywood within the relationship of a tortured artist living in the shadow of his more successful counterpart — in other words, the kind of story that the Oscars typically love. Unfortunately, in the race for original screenplay — penned by Ron, Russell and Carax — this may be too high of a hurdle to clear.
Musicals and horror films typically walk into awards consideration with some baggage. In Oscar history, the writing branch has not been kind to musical. The first and only musical to ever win original screenplay was “An American in Paris” (1951) by Alan Jay Lerner. In the same space, only eight others have been nominated, most recently “La La Land” (2016), which lost to “Manchester by the Sea” from Kenneth Lonergan. Before that, you travel nearly 40 years back to “Fame” (1980). Even when “Chicago” (2002) won best picture, it couldn’t muster the statuette in adapted screenplay, losing to “The Pianist.” These are always challenging stats to overcome, especially if you’re not active in the winning discussion, which this won’t be. Acting mentions could be a more attainable reach.
We’ve seen Driver take on a role like this with Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (2019), where we saw the first glimpse of his vocal chops during the pivotal “Being Alive” moment and for which he received a best actor nomination, likely the runner-up to Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker.” Driver is delectably profound as the darkly comic Henry, who weirdly feels like an inception of a cinematic Bo Burnham. With one other nom to his credit for “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), he’s asserted himself as one of our greatest working actors. He feels like one that will inevitably have his Oscar moment soon. The problem this year will be choosing which of his many projects to get behind.
With Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and “House of Gucci” opposite Lady Gaga, the 38-year-old actor will need to put his support behind the one that has the best chance for recognition. Based on the premise, “The Last Duel” would be a supporting play, while early word suggests he’s a co-lead in the story of the murder of Maurizio Gucci by his wife, Patrizia. Could he be a possible double acting nominee down the line, or will he and his team abandon the one(s) that don’t click with voters?
When it comes to Simon Helberg, most loved for playing our favorite aerospace engineer from “The Big Bang Theory,” he’s utterly splendid as The Conductor, putting forward his best performance yet, and the best of any supporting actor this year so far. Offering a more grounded and accessible role for the casual viewer to latch onto, in what I consider to be the best scene of the film, his “I’m an Accompanist” feels like the cinematic and emotional equivalent to Emma Stone’s “Audition” from “La La Land.” He’s allowed to stretch himself in a way he’s never been afforded up to this point while tying together Carax’s storytelling vision, highlighted by DP Caroline Champtier’s exquisite panoramic camera technique.
For Champtier, she’ll likely be one of the few female cinematographers in the conversation this year and would be an inspired and worthy artisan up for awards consideration.
As Ann, Marion Cotillard returns to a musical narrative that she’s shown to excel in throughout her career. Always showing naturalistic ease and approach to her roles, she displays Ann’s love, fear and torment nearly perfectly. Critics and audiences may get wrapped up in her duet with Driver, “We Love Each Other So Much,” in which he performs cunnilingus while belting out the expressive number. It’s a provocative moment surely, and one that will be embraced by the large European membership of the Academy. For Cotillard’s awards chances, the 45-year-old actress won an Oscar for best actress for “La Vie en Rose” (2007), portraying the iconic French singer Édith Piaf. However, she had a difficult time returning to the Oscar ranks despite well-received turns in films “Public Enemies” (2009), “Nine” (2009), “Inception” (2010), “Rust and Bone” (2012) and “The Immigrant” (2013). It wasn’t until she landed a surprise nomination for “Two Days, One Night” (2014) that she was able to make her way back after leading the precursors and missing critical Globe, SAG and BAFTA nominations. Likely to mount a supporting actress run, which is more than appropriate given how the story unfolds, she could be a possibility if the film manages to stay on the radar after its August release.
Likely to be incredibly divisive among audiences, the film presents admirable achievements in the technical categories that could factor into the Oscar equation. The way Carax chooses to depict and present Annette, the unique and gifted daughter of Henry and Ann, is spectacularly inventive. While it may feel jarring for the casual movie-goers at first glance, I imagine the members of the production design and visual effects branches may feel enamored by its approach.
Let’s see if the bow at the Palais was the right choice.