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Stephen Dalton [Film Festival 07.06.12] Canada scifi drama romance

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A rare example of a French-Canadian science-fiction thriller with the glossy dimensions of a blockbuster, Mars & Avril is a flawed labor of love for former graphic designer turned writer-director Martin Villeneuve, the younger brother of the acclaimed Quebecois film-maker Denis. Adapting his own two graphic novels, first published in Quebec in 2006, Villeneuve has conjured up a highly polished comic-book futurescape that recalls classic French fantasy fables like Jeunet and Carot’s City of Lost Children and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. Fresh from its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary film festival, this dreamy romantic fairy tale is ablaze with visual panache, but sadly lacking in dramatic spark.

Mars & Avril is a love triangle played out in a futuristic Montreal. Jacques Languirand brings a soulful sadness to his role as Jacob Obus, a 75-year-old jazz virtuoso with a huge cult following and a reputation as a legendary lover. Paul Ahmarani plays Arthur, who builds the exotic musical instruments that Jacob plays, each modeled on a different female body. The instruments are designed by Arthur’s father Eugene Spaak, played by the veteran Canadian film-maker and theatre director Robert Lepage. Spaak is a long-dead scientific genius now immortalized as a flickering blue holographic head on a cyborg body, one of the film’s many clever visual innovations.

Against the backdrop of the first manned mission to Mars, all three men have their lives changed by the arrival of Avril, a beautiful young photographer played by Caroline Dhavernas. She becomes romantically entangled with Jacob, a love which seems to magically heal the medical condition which stifles her breathing. But their affair threatens his own fragile health, exposing the truth behind his womanizing image and causing jealous friction with Arthur, who has also fallen for Avril’s enigmatic charms.

Taking over as director when Lepage dropped out, Villeneuve took seven years to bring Mars & Avril to the screen. Despite his inexperience and relatively modest budget, he enlisted some heavyweight talents along the way, including Belgian comic-book artist Francois Schuiten as his production designer and the visual effects wizard Carlos Monzon, a veteran of Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic, whose previous credits include Avatar and the Transformers movies. While the performance scenes were all shot digitally within 25 days, mostly against a green screen backdrop, six months of special effects work followed. And it shows - this is a visually immersive screen experience.

Sadly, it is also burdened with a deeply whimsical and rambling plot. Almost like a parody of a stereotypically pretentious French film, all the characters speak in flowery poetic metaphors about love, music, philosophy and spirituality. Despite potentially gripping themes like sexual jealousy and mortality, the action seems to take place according to a nebulous fairy-tale logic, with little sense that anything serious is at stake.
For example, Arthur’s sulky generational conflict with his father and romantic rivalry with Jacob both feel like dramatic contrivances that are never fully explored, fading as the cryptic plot increasingly blurs the borders between dream and reality, hallucination and muddled musical metaphor. At one point the script seems to suggest the mission to Mars is a staged hoax, as in the classic 1977 conspiracy thriller Capricorn One, and even that Mars itself a fictional creation. Once again, these baffling loose ends are never convincingly resolved.

So much for what Mars & Avril gets wrong. What the film does very well is sumptuous production design and inspired visual concepts, conjuring up a dazzling retro-futurist metropolis full of beautifully detailed steampunk touches: shimmering skyscrapers of interlocking geometric blocks, towers of light reaching to the heavens, blazing 3D holograms blasting out news bulletins in public spaces, multi-storey express trains of streamlined neon with plush Art Deco interiors, fortress-like imperial palaces with elegant curved facades, vast subterranean workshops full of clanking machinery and fizzing electro-magnetic gizmos. Vintage mad-scientist stuff.
With echoes of both Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, this fanastical North American cityscape feels very different to the dystopian noir backdrops seen in most SF films since Blade Runner. Villeneuve’s re-imagined Montreal may be a vast mega-sprawl, but it is also a clean, safe, human-friendly twilight zone awash with coffee-table jazz and romantic poetry. Very Canadian, in other words.

To Villeneuve’s credit, Mars & Avril marries the high-gloss look of a Hollywood future-world blockbuster to the more cultured, subtle sensibility of an indie-auteur movie. If you can see past the fanciful plot and tediously self-absorbed characters, this striking debut is best enjoyed as a visually ravishing tribute to the power of love.

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MetaBeast (9 years ago) Reply

It seems that Stephen Dalton was expecting a more action-packed sci-fi, Hollywood-style film… I saw MARS ET AVRIL at KVIFF and I agree that the visuals are stunning, but in my opinion what this reviewer didn't like about the film is precisely what makes it special. The story is beautifully told, and all the parallel narratives come together at the end for a moving and meaningful resolution. Read this review from Variety for another point of view:


MetaBeast (9 years ago) Reply

I can't wait to see this film! Meanwhile, I tried to order the graphic novels from which it is adapted, but sadly they don't seem to be available in English. U.S. publishers should look into it, as the film is about to be released.


MetaBeast (9 years ago) Reply

I meant that I can't wait to see this film once again (it sucks that we can't edit our comments). Let's hope that it finds a distributor in the U.S.

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