A black screen and a disembodied voice requesting the audience’s complete attention. Not to laugh, cry or even fart. In fact, not to even breathe until the end of the show—a construct made all the more strangely prescient in these pandemic times. So begins the long gestated journey for the brothers Russell & Ron Mael, otherwise known as Sparks, to bring their first screenplay to fruition. After stalled projects over the years with directors Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, here comes Annette, which arrives in theaters today (and on Amazon August 20) after a grand opening at this years Cannes Film Festival. Collaborating with French director Leos Carax, Annette is a wildly audacious, visually stunning, yet at times maddeningly distant and unreachable musical.

A little backstory: the Maels first presented the director years ago with a screenplay, originally commissioned by the Swedish Film Institute, that presented a fantasy in which the legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman had come to Hollywood, only to be trapped there unable to get out. (Despite being wooed by Hollywood, Bergman never actually made an American film.) As delightful as that idea sounds, it proved to be a non starter, so they turned to a rock opera written originally to just be a new Sparks album. Carax, whose small but meaningful body of work (five feature films in 37 years) is notable for its freewheeling, eccentric take on romance in all its glory and dangers (Mauvais Sang, The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X), and his last film, the wild nonlinear love letter to film -- 2012’s Holy Motors -- would seem to be the perfect match for Sparks own eccentric, wry, sometimes cheeky, lovingly cynical and often hilarious takes on those subjects. In fact it was a scene in Holy Motors, featuring actor Denis Lavant playing “How Are You Getting Home” (from Sparks 1975 album Indiscreet) in a car, that sowed the seeds for Carax to make an entire film told only through song.

Adam Driver, in another marvelous performance that further solidifies his status as one of our finest actors, is the playfully named Henry McHenry, a Lenny Bruce style comedian/performance artist of some success. Henry’s show, aptly titled "The Ape of God," has him stalking and provoking the audience who often question, comment and yell right back at him. Henry has fallen in love with Ann, a perfectly cast Marion Cotillard, an opera singer of even greater note who couldn’t be more different. Ann’s slight, quiet charms lay opposite to Henry’s brooding, hulking, self loathing, alpha male. In remarking to each other of how their individual performances went, Henry sings “I Killed Them," while Ann sings “I Saved Them.”

After marrying, they have a child named Annette with a singular gift discovered later and who, in one of the most inventive parts of the film, is portrayed in the form of a puppet. As Henry’s show becomes angrier and his popularity dives, Ann’s only gets bigger. “Showbiz News," a celebrity infotainment program that serves a Greek Chorus via alerts that pop in and out of the film, has dubbed the couple "Beauty and the Bastard." Henry is a bad guy who wants to be good (he sings the refrain “I’m A Good Father” over and over, convincing no one),  but his inability to find joy as a result of his loathing, jealousy and anguish leads the relationship down a path of destruction.

There is much to love here. In many ways this pairing of this director and Sparks is a perfect match that allows them to each accentuate their already established willingness to take risks and go places others don’t. In one of the most rousing openers to a film you will see all year, the camera opens on a recording studio with the engineer, played by Carax himself, calling his real life daughter Nastya over, saying they are about to start. Turning around we see Ron and Russell and their touring band begin the aptly titled “So May We Start,” only to have them leave the studio and in a brilliant one-take march outside and down an LA street, joined in song by the cast and crew, ending with the onlookers waving goodbye as the main cast go off with their costumes to begin the story. There's also minor chord ballad “We Love Each Other So Much" has Driver singing while engaged in the act of cunnilingus, and in the rousing "You Used to Laugh," Driver’s Henry excoriates the audience to just fuck off. It's a song that would've fit nicely on Sparks' 1976’s album, Big Beat. While I wish there had been more songs like this, you can't argue with what is there, with everything from rock to artpop to ballads, classical and opera.

The cinematography at times is striking. Working again with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, whose work on Holy Motors was a thing of beauty, there are moments of real cinematic beauty that matches the grandeur of what this story wants to be. At one point, Henry and Ann fight on a yacht while a storm rages in the background, a scene that tips its hat to about 1000 old films. The actors hold up their end of the bargain in their singing, too. Driver’s flash of it in Marriage Story is brought home here. Cotillard is aided to great effect by blending her voice with the opera singer Catherine Trottman. Comparisons to other movies are abundant, including A Star is Born, Pinocchio, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, the dark fatalism of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and Lars Von Trier’s ominous Dancer in the Dark.

While filled with irony, cleverness, freewheeling nature and intelligence, Annette too often threatens to disengage the audience from the story being told. While clever, the ingenuity of using a puppet to embody Annette also distances the connection. It's a marvel of song and vision, but I was never able to fully engage in its tale, even in it’s tragic, sad and visually emotional ending. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it meanders at times, too ingenious for its own good, bogged down in its musicality. More hits than misses though, Annette is still a film worthy of viewing, especially for Sparks fans and those who marvel at films that go places most do not.

Be sure to stay throughout the credits as the band and cast and crew send you off with a few final choice suggestions.

You can watch the Annette trailer, and listen to the full soundtrack (spoilers abound), below.

Edgar Wright's new documentary The Sparks Brothers is streaming now.

Sparks will be on tour in 2022 including two nights at NYC's Town Hall (tickets).

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