Saturday, April 20, 2013

Don’t Play with the Martians, a.k.a. Lent in the Month of March (Les Artistes Associés, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” at last night’s Mars movie night was a 1967 French film called Ne jouez pas avec les Martiens, which literally translates as “Don’t Play with the Martians,” though the version we were watching (courtesy of the instant-streaming feature of Netflix) was an English-dubbed one called Lent in the Month of March (the last word being an obvious pun because the French word for the month of March is Mars; next month they’re showing another French movie whose title makes the same pun, Mars et Avril, “March and April” or “Mars and April”). Why they substituted a dumb and difficult to understand title for the genuinely witty one the film bore in its native land is a mystery; the film was produced for Les Artistes Associés, the French branch of United Artists, and the star was Jean Rochefort, the actor who 35 years later caused such grief for Terry Gilliam when he cast him as Don Quixote in a modern-dress version with Johnny Depp as Sancho Panza, which never got finished (in fact it barely got begun) but whose fiasco was the subject of a quite amusing 2002 documentary called Lost in La Mancha. (One of the problems was that just before the shoot began Rochefort, an amateur horseback rider, developed severe hemorrhoids that made it agony for him to sit on a horse — and Gilliam’s script had called for Quixote to be on horseback throughout most of the film.) It was odd seeing Rochefort as a young man and even odder that the film was framed with essentially the same gimmick as Here Comes Trouble, the 1948 Hal Roach “streamliner” we had just seen. Rochefort plays Paris Gazette reporter René Mastier, whose editor can’t fire him because he’s the publisher’s nephew, but he’s become a pariah and made the paper the laughingstock of Paris because he keeps missing stories about war and revolution and writing instead about trivia (he misses the Cultural Revolution in China and writes about Chinese cuisine in Peking; then he misses the military overthrow of the government of Brazil because he’s too busy making time on the Rio beach with the local bunnies and writing about the Carnival).

In today’s dumbed-down news business he’d be right at home, but for revenge his editor sends him to Loqmaria, a fishing village off the coast of Brittany where it’s gloomy all the time and rainy most of the time, to cover a human-interest story about a woman named Christine who’s supposedly about to have quintuplets. He takes along his comic-relief sidekick Paddy (André Valardy), proof that they didn’t break the mold after they made Frank McHugh, and the two of them try to find the young woman who’s supposed to have all those babies. The person they find — about the only one on the island who’s willing to talk to them — is Maryvonne Gueguén (Macha Méril), who works as an assistant to Christine’s pediatrician and from whom they find that Christine isn’t married — which pretty much blows the idea of a big human-interest stories and all the tie-ins with baby-product manufacturers the editor was hoping for. As a joke, Maryvonne types on René’s teletype machine a story that men from Mars have landed on the island — and thanks to a convenient blackout that prevents René from sending a retraction in time, the Paris Gazette prints this as a valid story and causes an influx of the world’s media and curiosity seekers to the island. As things turn out, there is an interplanetary invasion of sorts going on at Loqmaria, though it’s just one flying saucer and it isn’t from Mars but from another planet called Gamma-2. What’s more, it turns out there are six Gammans running around, all of them dressed in skin-tight silver suits (and all of them quite obviously played by female actors even though they are referred to in the movie’s dialogue as male — this would be a good movie for the non-binary crowd and I’d be tempted to add “Transgender” to its key words on … but then again, if this is a Transgender movie so is Lassie, Come Home), and one of them is the babies’ father (and there are six, not five) even though Christine insists that all she did with the alien was kiss him on the lips. It turns out that on Gamma-2 that is all it takes to conceive.

 Don’t Play with the Martians (to use the more sensible and cleverer of its English titles) is one of those annoying movies that’s occasionally amusing but far less clever than its makers (writer/director Henri Lanoë and co-writer Johanna Harwood, working from a novel by Michel Labry called The Sextuplets of Loqmaria) clearly thought, and it also doesn’t help that the part of René calls for the young Cary Grant and gets the young Jean Rochefort. It’s not a bad movie, and it might come off better in a subtitled version (though the dubbing is as good as one can expect from a bastard form; there aren’t any of the hilariously obvious mismatches between the characters’ dialogue and the lip movements that make the Godzilla movies so much fun), but it’s not very interesting either. On the basis of the on-line synopsis Charles compared it to Village of the Damned, but about all the two films have in common is origins in 1960’s Europe and the central plot premise of an alien (or several aliens) from outer space impregnating earth women — and whereas Village of the Damned delivered an ultra-serious thriller based on the sinister powers of the resulting children, the makers of Don’t Play with the Martians couldn’t have seemed less interested in what would happen and what would result when Earthlings and Gammans mated. It’s a sporadically amusing film whose creators obviously thought they were making a laff-riot — they are, after all, from the country that lionized two such profoundly different comedians as Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis — and it’s the sort of mediocre movie that leaves you neither exhilarated nor infuriated; it’s just sort of there, though at least at 85 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome … much.