By Lynn Venhaus
My first thought was “What did I just see?” Then, “How am I going to put this into words?”

In present-day Los Angeles, Henry (Adam Driver) is a comedian/performance artist with a shock act who is in love with his opposite, Ann (Marion Cotillard), a beloved and beautiful opera singer. Always in the spotlight, their passion is lived out loud. They have a child together, Annette, a prodigy who can sing like her mother and becomes famous too.

Over time, I predict that “Annette” will gain a cult following and be debated in cinematic circles. For now, this unconventional film is a strange experience, haunting and disturbing –yet there is a willingness to applaud the artists’ ambition at work here.

People involved in this production have renowned reputations for beating to their own drummers. Visionary director Leos Carax, responsible for the strangest film I have ever seen, “Holy Motors” in 2012, an indescribable mix with nods to David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro, took the reins here. He recently won Best Director for “Annette” at the Cannes Film Festival.

Both his films have a trippy hallucinatory quality, although “Holy Motors” is more of a fever dream while “Annette” is akin to a nightmare.

The melodramatic story about love, passion and fame is from the idiosyncratic Sparks Brothers, aka Ron and Russell Mael, two of the most original musicians still at work 50 years later. They never want to repeat themselves, and as film students years ago, they have had a desire to make a film for years.

In the recent documentary about them, their fondness for the French New Wave of the late 1950s is mentioned and how it has influenced their work, which you can see here. For this film, they wrote the music and Russell wrote the screenplay.

This collaboration between eccentric artists would seem to mesh, but this appears disjointed in a brash, intended style and is too bizarre to embrace. It has the vibe of an experimental film, theater of the absurd and a pop opera concept album. Don’t seek answers to your questions because whatever you find mysterious will stay that way.

“Annette” begins with the cast and crew singing the earworm “So May We Start,” with Russell leading and Ron on keyboard, as the cast and crew morph into their duties by the number’s end on the streets of L.A. – Driver and Cotillard turn into Henry and Ann, the star-crossed lovers central to this grand operatic spectacle. This song’s a foreshadowing of the fine line between reality and fiction that the movie addresses with its alternative reality, hyper-reality appearance.

And off we go into a dark abyss. Suffice it to say it will be one wild ride, one you won’t soon forget.

As the famous couple, Driver’s and Cotillard’s characters in the public eye and the paparazzi are obsessed with them.

They are dubbed “Beauty and the Bastard.” Henry McHenry’s act is as an angry, aggressive, defiant man who antagonizes his audience, with back-up singers on stage. She is a world-renowned soprano, revered for her voice and ethereal beauty.

Henry’s self-destructive obsession, jealousy, resentment and massive ego are harmful to their relationship, especially when his career starts spiraling downward. His hostility eventually turns off his audiences. Ann, however, is a celebrity darling. Their lives are a crazy cyclone, comparable to the familiar “A Star Is Born” plot, which you know won’t end happily ever after.

They have a daughter, Annette, who is physically manifested by doll puppets. She will become a singing sensation with something to say. The wooden marionette is creepy.

Simon Helberg, who starred on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” for 12 seasons and played the delusional singer’s accompanist in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” is a character only called The Conductor. He and Ann had a brief relationship before Henry, and he still carries the torch. He gives a passionate performance, demonstrating he has more range than we’ve seen before.

This world becomes more surrealistic, with blurred lines. But it does have hypnotic visuals.

While Driver has the showier, more ferocious role, he and Cotillard are both mesmerizing performers. She won an Oscar as Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose,” and has played a variety of emotionally complex roles since 2008. Her authenticity and earnestness inhabit every character. What’s so appealing in Ann is lightyears from Driver’s dour character.

It’s such a treat to see Cotillard on screen that it’s disappointing she hasn’t more to do.

Driver immerses himself so completely in every role that you can’t pin down his work, but his emotional honesty has always resonated. As the career-focused director in “A Marriage Story,” and as the commitment-phobe Adam in HBO’s “Girls,” he has not been afraid to be unsympathetic and venture into the negatives. Dude, he killed his father in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”! (Spoiler alert for a 6-year-old movie).

Next to Kylo Ren, this is the deepest dive into darkness yet. He tears it up as a mad man, an unchecked out-of-control bad boy. There seems to have been potential for a more interesting film that could have been developed about such a guy.

But the actors can only take a film so far if the material is thin and not fully developed, at least in a typical narrative way.

And there’s no way the gloom and doom can be lightened. Do not expect a traditional musical format – there are no optimistic song-and-dance numbers comparable to “Another Day of Sun” in “La La Land” or “Life’s a Happy Song” in “The Muppets.” Think of the major tragic operas, conjuring up as much pain and suffering as possible through big arias.

The film is certain to bring up the age-old conundrum – What is art? What does it all mean? And does it mean anything’?

We can understand, however, its take on bleak romance and drawbacks on fame as it rages about toxic masculinity. You don’t need a degree in Fellini to figure these things out.

However, the sung dialogue and repetitive songs are not strong enough to make us care more or enhance the plot, like “La La Land” did with its focus on two career trajectories.

“Annette” is a confounding, confusing, peculiar work that will be one of the most polarizing of the year. It is a difficult story to pin down, and perhaps on repeated viewings, more meaning can be unlocked – or not.

“Annette” is a 2021 musical directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg. It is Rated R for sexual content including some nudity, and for language and the runtime is 2 hours and 20 minutes. The movie is in theaters on Aug. 6 and streaming on Amazon Prime beginning Aug. 20. Lynn’s Grade: C.

By Alex McPherson
Whenever Edgar Wright releases a new film, my heart races with anticipation. After such classics as “Shaun of the Dead” and my all-time favorite, “Hot Fuzz,” I had high expectations for his new documentary about the difficult-to-describe pop band known as Sparks. The film, aptly titled “The Sparks Brothers,” isn’t as fine-tuned as his previous efforts, despite Wright’s stylistic touches and the likability of the subjects at its center.

“The Sparks Brothers” chronicles the rickety journey of brothers Ron and Russell Mael — two individuals passionate about staying true to their creative spirit, despite outside pressures. Growing up in Los Angeles with a love of music and French New Wave cinema, Ron and Russell were eager to make a name for themselves by walking paths less taken. As a result, their artistic “genius” — rammed into our heads by a huge group of interviewees, including Flea, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Neil Gaiman — was often overlooked by record companies, nevertheless influencing a number of successful bands down the road. They have remained steadfast in their desire to create art, frequently layered with social commentary, that never panders to a given audience and remains beautifully unpredictable. Wright’s film, organizing their story by spotlighting specific songs from each of their 25 albums, aims to finally give them the recognition they merit.

An energetic, inspiring, yet overly glowing music documentary, “The Sparks Brothers” feels like a film made by Sparks fans for Sparks fans. Viewers previously unaware of the band, like myself, will likely leave the film with an urge to listen to some Sparks songs and not much else. Sure, perhaps Wright wasn’t aiming to “move” viewers, but when the two-hour mark rolls around, hearing the huge pool of interviewees gush about how much they love Sparks grows tiresome.

“The Sparks Brothers” is, thankfully, a much more self-aware documentary than most others I’ve seen, filled with Wright’s signature quick-cuts and sight gags that usually put a smile on my face. He incorporates archival footage, stop-motion animation, and staged reenactments to visualize anecdotes during Spark’s tumultuous history. For example, to complement discussion of Spark’s beginnings, we see shots of a colorful bird spreading its wings, and shots of doors being shut in people’s faces when they struggle to get signed. These moments don’t necessarily add poignancy to the proceedings, but their charm helps keep the film moving when the runtime threatens to derail my interest.

It doesn’t hurt that Ron and Russell are excellent interview subjects, each with a dry sense of humor that fits perfectly among the characters in Wright’s filmography. Russell, the more traditionally handsome, outgoing one, is effectively contrasted with Ron, who dons an Adolf Hitler/Charlie Chaplin mustache and retains stoic facial expressions. They seem inseparable, sticking together through challenges, even when they dip in popularity and end up abruptly abandoning those they collaborate with. While we don’t get an in-depth look at their personal lives or their songwriting process, their desire to create songs that challenge and entertain is admirable.

Anecdotes about mishaps onstage, their love lives, and unfortunate cinematic involvement are amusing, albeit not especially compelling from an outsider perspective. When specific songs and album covers are discussed, on the other hand, “The Sparks Brothers” is considerably more appealing. The surprising themes of “Tits” and the stylistic subversion of “Kimono My House” are enlightening. I wish “The Sparks Brothers” contained more of this deeper analysis, and spent less time on famous interviewees repeating themselves about how godlike the band is. A tight, 90-minute cut is in there somewhere, but two-hours-and-twenty-minutes is really pushing it. Maybe Wright’s excess matches those of the Mael brothers themselves, though, marking their big-screen treatment with the showmanship they deserve (at least until their new project alongside Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and French director Leos Carax releases later this year).

When the dust has settled, “The Sparks Brothers” feels somewhat superfluous, but remains passably engaging through to the end. Watching the film in two sittings could provide a more satisfying experience, but I’m eager to add Sparks to my playlists, so perhaps that’s good enough.

Sparks_By_Anna_Webber_9 c Ron Mael and Russell Mael star in Edgar Wright’s documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anna Webber / Focus Features

“The Sparks Brothers” is a 2021 documentary directed by Edgar Wright. It is Rated R for language and runs 2 hours, 15 minutes. Alex’s Grade: B-. The film is in theaters June 18.