by CRYSTAL CHAN and MALCOLM FRASER
Mars et Avril
Somehow, Mars et Avril is both low-budget schlock and blockbuster gloss. It’s being billed as the first Québécois sci-fi flick, so maybe it’s fitting: the genre is known, after all, for both camp and thrill-in-your-seats SFX.
Martin Villeneuve’s first feature (yes, he’s related to Denis — Martin is the younger brother of the Oscar-nominated director of Incendies) is based on his two photo-romans of the same name. This type of graphic novel features photos instead of drawings. All of the models in the books reprise their roles in the film, with one exception. There’s Jacques Languirand as septuagenarian musician Jacob, Paul Ahmarani as his instrument designer Arthur, and Robert Lepage as Arthur’s father, a cyborg and (mad?) scientist.
In the future or an alternate universe in Montreal, Jacob and Arthur’s friendship strains when they both fall for Avril, portrayed in the movie (but not the comics) by Caroline Dhavernas. Things get even more complicated when they accidentally get sucked into the big news story of their day, the first human Mars landing.
Villeneuve, who’s designed ads and video for Sid Lee and Cirque du Soleil, published the first comic a decade ago. Then, three years later in 2005, Lepage — who is renowned for his technologically-innovative designscapes for stage and film — bought the film rights, initially intending to direct. All this to say that even though it is Villeneuve’s first feature, he had access to pedigreed, design-focused troops. Mars et Avril is stunning to listen to and look at. Benoît Charest (Oscar-nominated composer for The Triplets of Belleville) dreamt up the sounds of Jacob’s bizarre instruments, which Cirque du Soleil funded. Production designer François Schuiten (The Golden Compass) and VFX supervisor Carlos Monzon (Avatar, Transformers) created a slick sci-fi metropolis with a mere $2.3 million.
In fact, the penny-pinching might have led to some of the best bits. The integration of retrofitted old props, from rotary-dial phones to 19th-century trains, make for a cool steampunk aesthetic. Because of a scheduling conflict, Lepage’s shots were later overlaid onto a body played by Jean Asselin, retaining only his head — and Villeneuve decided to make it work by transforming his character into a hologram from the neck up.
Montrealers will also get a kick out of finding the familiar among the futuristic landscape (the Farine Five Roses sign still shines on, the apartment buildings all look like Habitat 67) and the various inside jokes — the STM is now the Société de Téléportation de Montréal; Arthur blames his lack of hair on his dad (Lepage famously suffers from alopecia).
The movie doesn’t look cheap at all, but alas, it still reeks of low-budget camp when it comes to the story. It’s clear that Villeneuve, trained as a designer and ad man, is good with big-picture ideas and how something should look, and less so with nuanced storytelling. Mars et Avril has a meandering plot and shallow characters who spout tiring philosophies and metaphors about reality, spirituality, and love.
In this way, Mars et Avril is like a warped, amateur version of Malick’s The Tree of Life: if you can stomach a confusing narrative and pretentious themes, you’ll enjoy the visual feast. (CC) Imperial Theatre (1432 Bleury), 6:30 p.m.
There’s a scene in Martin Amis’s Money, in which the self-reflexive “Martin Amis” character is asked what it’s like to be a novelist just like his father. “Bit like taking over the family pub, really,” is his sarcastic rejoinder.
I couldn’t help but think of this while watching Antiviral, the feature debut from Brandon Cronenberg, son of you-know-who. With his film’s sinister scientific corporations, disembodied living flesh and obsession with the body and its viscera, the younger Cronenberg definitely seems to have taken over the family business (leaving his dad to pursue his high-literary period).
Caleb Landry Jones stars as Sid, who works at the Lucas Clinic, a company that provides the public with celebrity viruses, so they can feel closer to their favourite stars by sharing the celebs’ ailments. (It says something about the world we live in that this doesn’t come across as an overly exaggerated version of the current reality.)
Sarah Gadon (who also appeared in the elder Cronenberg’s last two films) is the clinic’s hottest star, currently lying in her sickbed with a virus her people are eager to sell. Sid becomes embroiled in an underground virus trade while addictively dosing himself with the bug.
The film has a strong gross-out angle, with a lot of closeups of injections and infections. It also ably captures and dramatizes the strangely ecstatic feeling of being really sick. While it could have lost 10 minutes or so, and there is the occasional clumsy moment as befits a first-time filmmaker, it’s generally quite strong, with creepy atmosphere and solid suspense. (My main problem was with Jones’s hairstyle. A ponytail? Really? They couldn’t have asked him to cut it?)
It’s impossible to avoid comparing the son to the father, with a lot of Antiviral‘s themes and imagery straight out of the latter’s fertile Videodrome-through-Naked Lunch period. Fans who bemoan the elder Cronenberg’s move away from bodily horror will be delighted to find that his son has taken up the mantle with aplomb. Whether he carries on the family tradition or ends up branching out in different directions himself, it’s good to see that talent runs in the family. (MF) Imperial Theatre, 9 p.m., screening with short film Ana ■
The Festival du nouveau cinéma runs through Oct. 21