Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mars et Avril [March and April/Mars and April] (EMA Films, Mars et Avril, Productions du 8e art, 2013)

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

Charles and I eventually did get out and we went to the Mars film screening in Golden Hill — which was a bit too long because the person in charge of it insists on showing at least an hour’s worth of trailers for other movies, home-grown videos from the Internet (including an absolutely hilarious one showing a kids’ musical version of the original Star Trek) and episodes of a serial — in this case the next-to-last one of a film called Project One, which despite a piss-poor budget is a quite effective tale in which a Russian family during the 1980’s (when the Soviet Union was still a going concern) was sent to Mars by a secret rocket program, lived there for over two decades and then sent back their son, whose spacecraft crash-landed in Canada and was scooped up by the Canadian air force, which in collaboration with the U.S. put a quarantine around the base while they were waiting for the man to come to — and also put out a cover story about the incident that blamed it on a terrorist attack. As a result I was already feeling pretty worn down by the time the feature started, which turned out to be an interesting and quirky movie even though I found it rather uneven. It was called Mars et Avril — the title is a double pun because Mars in French means both the planet Mars and the month March (a pun that was also made in last month’s Mars movie!) — and though I had had the impression going in that the movie had been made in France, it was really a Canadian production, though it seemed like a French movie, not only because all the dialogue was in French but because the plot had the sort of refreshing frankness about people’s sexual needs and drives one gets in French movies and almost never in U.S. ones.

The film, written as well as directed by Martin Villenueve, is set in 2154 and centers around German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s notion that the universe was musical — something he wrote about in his book Harmonie der Welt (“The Harmonies of the World”) — and an elderly but still popular musician named Jacob Obus (Jacques Languiraud) who leads a band that specializes in a sort of jazz-trance music featuring specially built instruments designed by Eugène Spaak (his head is played by Robert Lepage — yes, the same person who designed and directed that weird Ring cycle currently being played at the Met — and his body is played by Jean Asselin, because part of the plot gimmick is he’s rendered himself immortal by having himself changed into a holographic head on top of a robot body) and his (normally living) son Arthur (Paul Ahmarani, a kind of dorky-looking guy with a nice head of helmet-shaped hair, the sort of actor who gets cast in movies like this and then is replaced by a drop-dead gorgeous movie-star type if the film is remade in the U.S., much the way homely but decent-looking Donatas Banionis, the leading man of the marvelous Russian Solaris from 1972, was replaced by George Clooney in the far inferior Hollywood remake). The story centers around the rivalry between Jacob Obus and Arthur Spaak over the love of Avril (Caroline Dhavemas), which happens to be going on while the world space authority is launching a spacecraft to travel from humanity’s already well-established base on the moon to Mars. In a weirdly quirky scene in a movie that is full of weirdly quirky scenes, Avril insists on photographing Jacob Obus’s group with an old-style press camera, then agrees to go home with Arthur and model for the band’s latest lead instrument (they’re all designed in the images of actual people and one gets the impression that the band needs a new lead instrument for every gig they perform) as long as he agrees to be photographed by her first — and she makes him stand naked in front of her camera (she has him strip even though all she’s going to photograph is his face) for hours while she does a run-out to Obus’s latest concert.

The film was based on a graphic novel (i.e., a full-length comic book, though the French credits list it as a “photo-roman,” which could mean a long-form comic or one of those stories in which the plot is told in photos with word balloons and descriptions added), whose model for Avril, Marie-Josée Croze, was originally supposed to do the movie as well but left due to scheduling conflicts. It reaches its high point plot-wise when Jacob and Avril get into a teleportation booth together — this is one of those quirky views of the future in which some aspects are indeed well advanced from today’s technology (like teleportation machines being part of Montreal’s public transit system — indeed, the filmmaker got the same person who actually recorded the announcements for Montreal’s subways, Khanh Hua, to record the announcements for the teleporter) while others are well behind (the characters listen to music on LP’s and make phone calls on hard-wired landline phones) — despite the solemn warnings that only one person is supposed to use it at a time. As a result, Jacob and Avril get separated and he ends up where he intended to go — the Champ de Mars station near the club where he was supposed to play — while she ends up on the planet Mars, where the three “Marsonautes” (Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, Pierre Leblanc and Richard Robitaille, who at least to my mind bore a remarkable resemblance to the Three Stooges) have just built a teleporter in order that scientists from their mission control center can visit them on the planet. (If they could put a teleporter on Mars, why did they need a rocket to go there in the first place, one wonders — only it turns out that the teleporter can only be operated from outside, meaning that as long as there’s a person on the outside to push the switch it will function, so it can be used to go anywhere humans already live but not to boldly go where no one has gone before. But that still doesn’t answer how ordinary humans are able to work the teleporter from inside it to go from one Earth destination to another.)

At one point Villenueve throws us a ringer — the three Marsonautes tell Avril (and us) that they never went to Mars at all; they’re still on earth and the footage shown internationally on TV of them on their way and actually on the Red Planet was all faked in a studio (a bit of paranoia a lot of people believe about the U.S. space program!) — but it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to believe that, especially since the ending involves all three of the principals turning up on Mars after Jacob and Arthur have got there by following a stream of wind moving through the cosmos powering the musical instrument that is the universe, at least according to Kepler’s theories. Mars et Avril is one of those maddening movies that runs so totally against audience expectations from the get-go that it can’t offer any real sense of surprise, and yet I liked it better than I like most such films because at least it had real characterizations (though exactly what attracts Avril to a man three times her age is never quite spelled out — and one genuine surprise that is moving is when Jacob tells her, and us, that though he’s talked about a wide swath of female conquests he’s never actually had sex in his life before until their first time together), we actually care about the fate of the characters, and the whole thing is well done from that standpoint even though there are the usual lacunae in which one gets the impression things are happening in this movie simply because the plot is so free-form literally anything can happen. I suspect I would have liked this movie better if I had got to see it in a better-resolution image (either film or high-def digital video), since Villenueve’s visual virtuosity is the most entertaining part of the film and it would be nice to see it in something better than an ordinary DVD run through a projector and onto a screen big enough where you really could see the finite elements. As it was, it was refreshing, a bit ponderous at times and not quite as clever as Villenueve and his colleagues clearly thought it was — but it’s still worth seeing and a lot of fun, and I’m certainly going to respect a movie that’s trying so hard to be “different” even if it doesn’t always succeed. And I’m also going to respect a film that is so honest about human sexuality!