On 'Annette' and arthouse film in the age of streaming

Is it a good thing that mainstream audiences are being exposed to more challenging fare?

Brad Keefe
"Annette"

The world of arthouse film is often unfairly aligned with the term “film snob,” but there is an aspect of elitism at play. Theaters that specialize in these types of films pride themselves on being not quite for the masses. The clientele enjoys dissecting film as art, and high art isn’t always easily accessible.

This is why a film like “Annette” makes perfect sense premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, and less so nestled among the new releases on Amazon Prime.

To say “Annette” is eccentric is an understatement. It’s positively bonkers, a wild collaboration of weird and wonderful artists. In normal times, it would haven’t ridden the buzz out of Cannes, likely been distributed by an indie studio stateside, and been the sort of movie that had a decent run in arthouse theaters, making some critics’ year-end lists before arriving on home video.

These are not normal times.

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“Annette” was conceived by Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers from the band Sparks. If you’ve seen Edgar Wright’s wonderful 2021 documentary, “The Sparks Brothers,” you know we are in for a weird and wild ride. It’s also the English-language debut from French director Leos Carax. If you’ve seen Carax’s wonderful 2012 film “Holy Motors,” you know we are in for a really, really weird and wild ride.

These eccentric and artistically fearless talents combine in a bizarre rock opera that will go down as one of the most unique viewing experiences of the year.

The story centers on a world-famous acerbic comedian (Adam Driver) and a world-famous opera singer (Marion Cotillard) who have a whirlwind romance in the public eye. Their courtship includes an already infamous scene wherein Driver sings a duet while simultaneously performing (simulated) cunnilingus. They soon have a baby, the Annette of the title, and — this is important — the baby is played by a series of puppets. It’s a puppet baby.

I also wish to remind you that this is a musical.

I’m not even sure how to rate “Annette,” or even how I feel about it after one viewing. It’s so strangely serious and audacious, and it’s a lot to take in.

In normal times, the target audience would read rave reviews out of Cannes, see the movie at their local arthouse cinema, and spend an evening discussing and dissecting it. The opinions would likely be as mixed as mine, but it would be discussed.

We used to have to seek out movies like this. Now we just browse for them among all the other new content as we ask, “What haven’t I seen?”

What happens when you drop a movie like “Annette” among the new options for a mainstream streaming service? The movie sits right now with an average user rating of 2.9 out of 10.

It is delightful to think of your average bored Prime viewer getting served this in the ol’ algorithm. I really hope there are reaction videos. I want to know how far into it they got.

Arthouse material like this gets bought by streaming studios because they are all chasing serious studio clout, not because they necessarily think viewers will love it. Movies like this are often a mixed bag of reception with the larger streaming audience. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” might have brought Netflix serious Oscar contender weight, but it wasn’t widely watched.

One exception right now on Apple TV+ is “CODA,” an unabashedly crowd-pleasing movie that won over critics despite having such digestible appeal. (Yeah, I know, critics are weird.)

I’m torn on the impact of this, as well. It is good that more people are being exposed to more challenging films, which might open doors for more experimental movies. But I wonder in the long term, after Amazon Studios has gotten its share of Oscar nods, are they going to keep seeking out movies that get such a mixed reaction from subscribers?

They are, after all, in the content business.