ANNETTE: The easter eggs and hidden references that reveal a powerful screenwriting experiment
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
Leos Carax and Sparks’ modern musical is like a puzzle. It’s a thousand-piece jigsaw that leaves the audience to figure out how apes, moons and marionettes connect to performance, deceit and grizzly murder. It raises many questions, but also provides the answers. This heroically odd movie has a stream of references, that when looked at a certain way, form a bold singular statement about the creative process behind the movie itself.
To put it in context, consider what makes this a Sparks movie. It opens with art-pop legends Ron and Russell Mael introducing themselves as “the authors” and telling us to pay close attention to their tale, but from that point on, the movie has very little to do with the band. There are no in-jokes or autobiographical elements, and tonally is unlike anything they’ve produced in 50 years of storytelling. So why did they chose this story, and why did Leos Carax opt to tell it?
The answer to this is embedded in the subtext of the movie itself. It’s a grand experiment in screenwriting that questions what it means for Sparks, a band know for comedic pop songs laced with an ironic wit, to produce a real tragedy.
Over these posts I aim to prove that every scene in this movie has a second meaning. Here’s the theory.
Baby Annette represents the movie ‘Annette’, with her three parents being different aspects of Sparks’ creativity. Their competing influence over the child will shape what the movie will become.
Henry McHenry, the comedian, represents the commercial or “pop” side of Sparks.
Ann Defranoux, the opera singer, represents the high-art or their unknowable side.
The Conductor represents their technical expertise.
The ugly fates of these characters run parallel to the creative decisions made in shifting the essence of Sparks from the recording studio into Leos Carax’s movie world (something that‘s literally played out on-screen in the opening number).
There are several visual clues tying Baby Annette to the movie itself:
She’s born in a dark room with illuminated panels, like a movie screen:
The HyperBowl stage looks like the beam from a projector:
Her debut performance is shared on mobile phones and tablets, therefore it’s on-screen:
Close-ups of Annette at the HyperBowl are through the stadium’s huge Jumbotron screen.
Her final performance is introduced with the words “darkness, and then a sweet soft light”, just like the start of a movie (it’s also “for all eternity”).
She sings in moonlight, like a musical being projected in a cinema. Her father (who has the most control over Annette) rides a motorcycle with a bright headlight, also representative of a beam from a projector, but this time Henry is in control of it.
All four major characters in ‘Annette’ have a clearly defined relationship with the on-screen audience, and in Baby Annette’s case she’s seen by young children, which is representative of Sparks gaining a new following in the form of moviegoers.
Her debut performance spreads via social media, showing a view count of millions. Her final performance also puts a big emphasis on “the millions who are watching at home”. This is representative of the people who’ll have their first encounter with Sparks through watching ‘Annette’.
This is a film that fixates on stages: comedy clubs, opera houses, behind-the-curtain, the orchestra pit, the press conference, a stadium, asking whether the stage is "outside or within" in the opening song, and even the courtroom (which is set in a theatre for some reason). It's also on-stage where we learn the most about what the lead characters represent in relation to Sparks, the authors.
Ann (representing high-art or mystery) gives a heartfelt, emotive performance, but to the audience in the opera house she's a distant figure. She faces the back of the stage, disappears behind drapes, and even when she rushes forward it's into darkness, so she appears as a silhouette. She eventually leaves the opera house completely to wander a distant forest. She is adored by her audience even though they don’t see her true performance. The Accompanist describes Ann as “the grace, the genius”, and he himself as "the one with the technical expertise”, which is another creative asset of Sparks. This is represented in Simon Helberg's skilful on-stage performances, both of which demand incredible musical prowess.
Baby Annette’s final performance is literally on the biggest stage in the world, representing the Sparks movie being shared with millions. But it’s used to devastating effect, showing one of the saddest things imaginable - a scared child saying “Daddy Kills People”. This is a direct parallel to Sparks putting themselves on the world-stage with a big-budget movie and delivering such a bleak message. Baby Annette and Sparks are simultaneously using their biggest ever performance to reveal a tragedy to the world.
Henry McHenry’s on-stage performances don’t comfortably fit into the Sparks-centric worldview that I’ve described, and theses a great reason for this. It’s here that the French Director makes his presence felt in this story.
Leos Carax said this about this about his collaboration with Sparks:
“We had 80 songs and only kept 42. There were many versions of every song, depending on where the story was going.”
So during the 8 years of development, pieces were added, removed and altered, and this concept is embedded into the movie itself. If you look at the quotations, additional music and archival movie footage used throughout, something interesting connects it: there’s an uncanny number of references to creative works that were changed into something different, moving it beyond from the artist’s initial vision. Just like ‘Annette’.
‘The Crowd’ by King Vidor
This movie from 1928 is used during a montage of Ann’s performances. Its original release was delayed because the movie studio was displeased at the lack of a happy ending. At their insistence, seven alternative happy endings were filmed.
‘Till the clouds roll by’
While Henry is babysitting, the TV shows a musical number from this 1946 Judy Garland movie. The song, ’D’ye love me’, was filmed by a different director (her husband Vincente Minnelli) but then cut from the final movie.
Footage is used from this French nature documentary which was distributed by Disney Pictures. The final cut had 20 minutes of violent footage removed to make it palatable to a young audience.
We see this playing at a cinema while Henry rides past on his motorcycle. The Star Wars spin-off had extensive reshoots with new scenes, including a new soundtrack and ending.
‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’
There are several visual parallels between ‘Annette‘ and the first feature-length Disney movie. It was originally conceived as a comedy piece, with a continuous run of jokes from the dwarfs. In later drafts, scenes were removed in order to focus more on Snow White and the Evil Queen, and less on the comic relief.
’The Night of the Hunter’
The shot of Ann’s body falling to the depths of the ocean calls back to this 1955 American Thriller. The screenplay was by James Agee, based on his own book, but director Charles Laughton rewrote most of the script without credit. This was partly because the story features an evil preacher, highly controversial at the time, so the changes were made so that he would appear unordained.
This opera was completed in 1911, but not taken seriously because of its single act structure. It was modified in 1912 and a new ending added in 1917.
‘National Brotherhood Week’ by Tom Lehrer
This is the song that goes “and the Catholics hate the Muslims, and the Muslims hate the Catholics”. The musical satirist would often update the jokes in his songs at live performances.
‘Symphony No. 2’ by Gustav Mahler
This was composed reusing elements of the composer‘s first symphony,
‘Otello’ by Verdi
This was written between 1879 and 1887. Many drafts exist between the libretto first being written and its completion, with notes and letter published showing the evolution of the work as the music demanded changes to the text and vice versa.
‘Carmen’ by Bizet
This was altered several times during the rehearsal for the first performance. As such, the vocal score from March 1875 shows significant changes from the version of the score sold to the publishers, which is in turn different to the orchestral score. Nobody knows which version was originally performed.
‘Madam Butterfly’ by Puccini
First completed in 1904, this was withdrawn after a disastrous premiere. In total Puccini wrote five versions of this opera.
‘Norma’ by Bellini
When composing this opera, Bellini wanted it to be performed by star soprano Giuditta Pasta. To entice her, he offered to retouch or even change the character completely to suit her.
‘Symphony No. 4’ by Brahms
The debut performance was a scaled-down preview played on two pianos to a small audience of friends. Despite going on to be a classic, it was panned by the audience, with critic Eduard Hanslick describing it as “being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people”.
‘La traviata’ by Verdi
This opera was envisioned in a contemporary setting, but the authorities insisted it be set in the past.
‘Mother Courage and her Children’ by Bertold Bretch
This 1941 play includes the quotation “War is like love, it always finds a way”, which likely serves as inspiration for ‘True love always finds a way’. For it’s second production in 1949, Brecht revised the play to make Mother Courage less sympathetic, because despite rave reviews, he felt that critics misunderstood the piece.
These works aren’t necessarily being evoked because of their stories or themes, but because of how they were changed. Leos Carax and Sparks are showing us that the movie we’re watching is inextricably tied to the method used in creating it. In other words, it’s not just an incidental bit of trivia that ‘Annette’ had several drafts, it’s core to the understanding of the movie.
With the recent release of the Unlimited Edition of the soundtrack album, Sparks gave some insight into a previous draft, and it helps us to better understand the final movie. It includes a handful of demos and unused songs which show a very different trajectory for Henry McHenry. Instead of destroying his career by offending his audience, he’s instead met with indifference because falling in love and having a child has taken away his edge as a performer. We therefore know that Henry’s comedy routines were rewritten, and this fact can be used to explain a lot.
The title of Henry’s show is The Ape of God. This is a term for Satan that originated from the Middle Ages, meaning that he impersonates (or apes) godly things to make people do evil. Encyclopaedia Britannica describes it as “an evil who attempts to imitate God through spurious, malicious creations that he interpolates for the divine creations”. The word “interpolate” means “to insert something (of a different nature) into something else”, which is what the screenwriters are doing by reworking these scenes. The Henry McHenry that we see isn’t the character as originally envisioned - he’s a rewrite, and this explains the uncomfortable anti-comedy of his routines.
One of Sparks’ defining characteristics is humour, with a distinctive style of wit that’s been a constant presence in their music throughout the decades. Their songs feature colourful characters and clever pop-culture references, but with ‘Annette’ they go in the opposite direction, filling it with sadness at every turn. If you look back through Sparks’ catalogue of songs, finding something without an element of joy or humour is rare. They’re a “fun” band, but that element of fun is mostly missing in ‘Annette’ - this is fundamentally different to the Sparks we’ve seen before.
This was explained by Leos Carax when asked how the movie was reshaped from Sparks’ original screenplay.
“The only changes I made were with the writing. It was only a storyline without characters. The brothers live in this Sparks bubble, which is pop fantasy. There was a lot of irony. Irony in a cinema is a danger, I think. It has a tendency to make everything less crucial, less real. It’s a bit too easy for cinema, especially today. I had to make that irony into something else. We had to really create Henry as a character.”
To illustrate just how much Ron and Russell Mael’s style has changed for this movie, its worth calling attention to tropes in their music. I’ve always thought of Sparks as a band who can craft a fine running joke. Over the decades they’ve dropped dozens of references to girls from foreign shores. It’s sometimes obvious (‘Girl from Germany’ where the Jewish parents disapprove of their son’s new girlfriend) and it’s sometimes well hidden (“I know yes and no in a couple dozen other languages” in which ‘Johnny Delusional‘ is approaching a girl thats out of his league). It’s there on every album, and always delivered in a witty way. Henry McHenry continues this tradition in the nightclub scene, amongst the girls of “France and Italy”, but now there’s nothing to laugh at. He disappears to the bathroom and wonders if he’ll “ever be loveable again”.
This crucial change for the band is reflected in the movie by having a stand-up comedian that doesn’t tell jokes:
The paparazzi ask him to “Give us a smile” but he refuses to take off his helmet.
He reads out a contract that says he’s not allowed to make the public laugh.
He performs a rap describing laughter in cold physiological terms.
He says that somebody broke into his house and stole his jokes.
He riffs extensively on why he became a comedian in the first place.
He says that trying to be funny is like trying to enjoy a blowjob in a gas chamber
He sings “what’s profound for a clown?”
He says that the stars are laughing at him, thinking that it’s a hallucination. The moon represents the light from the projection booth, so maybe in an earlier draft the laughter was real.
The jokes have literally been written out of his routines: ”You used to laugh, but you sure ain’t laughing at me no more”.
The same idea is manifested in his story about tickling Ann to death. He claims it was a way to get out of sex - she wanted him but he was no longer turned on by her. However earlier in the film we saw that wasn’t the case - he actually came into the bedroom and pounced on her, tickling her and licking her feet. But as with the comedy, when he retells it he’s unable to perform. It fees like the scene is an intentional continuity error, the product of an earlier draft.
When Ann is pregnant, Henry has a restless night and dreams of his baby being born with a clown face - his worst nightmare. From the authors’ perspective, too much of Sparks trademark comedy in the movie will compromise the bleak vision for what ‘Annette’ needs to be - a true tragedy. So Henry’s descent into Villainy is done to corrupt Sparks’ own gift for joyful and ironic storytelling, and turn it into something altogether darker.
The remnants of earlier drafts are found in many songs:
‘Stepping back in time
I could step aside
Not allow my rage
To be magnified”
This is calling back to when he told his audience “if you don’t laugh you’re gonna feel, feel, feel the power of my rage”. In the demo version of this song the audience are silent with indifference rather than booing and jeering, so he instead sings the milder line “I’ll display a certain level of rage”. Between drafts his rage is literally magnified.
“I don’t know him, he is a stranger.. tonight“
”I adore this man, but something is wrong”
It’s a sudden change in Henry. During ‘We love each other so much’ it looks like he’s about to strangle Ann from behind, but the moment evaporates, going instantly back to utter devotion and sincerity. These are signs of Leos Carax’s villainous rewrite of Henry being inserted into the earlier draft’s perfect relationship.
While comforting Baby Annette on the stormy sea, Ann promises that all will be okay:
“All of the danger that I feel
I will dispel it with some magic!
Alakazam, I'll change the reel!
Look at the happy family dancing”
“Change the reel”: She’s saying that she can fix their lives by jumping into another movie - maybe something more Hollywood. Imagine if Sparks chosen to make this movie with Edgar Wright (a director that we already know has shared sensibilities) then this would be her family’s fate.
That’s it for part one. It’s the first of three posts. I’m grateful to anybody who made it this far and hope you’re interested in more. Check back soon to see how six women, sacrifices and Ingmar Bergman fit into all of this.
If you’ve enjoyed this then please share. I welcome any feedback, discussion or ideas, so please get in touch if you have something to say.
Paul Barrett, 2022.