A trippy science-fiction fable about the musicality of the universe that’s set in Montreal and on the Red Planet, the sumptuously designed “Mars and April” is certainly one of a kind. Multihyphenate French-Canadian artist and Cirque du Soleil alumnus Martin Villeneuve here adapts his eponymous graphic novels, which sure look and sound like they belong on the bigscreen, even if the mise-en-scene is occasionally somewhat fuzzy. With its emphasis on music and romance instead of intergalactic battles, the pic belongs squarely in the arthouse sphere, though marketing this odd if always imaginative beast beyond fests might prove tricky.
Celebrated 75-year-old musician Jacob Obus (Jacques Languirand, another Quebec multihyphenate) plays entire concerts on otherworldly instruments designed by Arthur (Paul Ahmarani), the son of Eugene Spaak (Robert Lepage, also one of the exec producers), a hermit whose face consists of a hologram.
Their solid player-designer-builder triangle comes undone when a beautiful woman, photographer April (Caroline Dhavernas), comes into their lives, and the non-hologram men fall under her spell. Arthur, who becomes one of April’s long-exposure portraiture subjects, conceives an instrument inspired by her body, which Jacob in turn tries to play.
Teleportation is already a reality for the inhabitants of this futuristic version of Montreal, and a mission to Mars also figures into the story. The foreshadowing of this is clearer for Francophones, since “Mars” in French literally designates both the Red Planet and the month of March, directly connecting Mars/March to April.
Sans rousing battle or action sequences, the film is that rare sci-fi spectacle that foregrounds elements other than Manichean ideas of good and evil — in this case romance, music and philosophizing about the universe. Combined with the pic’s golden-brown-hued look and oft-imaginative design, it makes for a distinctive whole that always fascinates on some level, even if the relative inexperience of the tyro helmer, the younger brother of “Incendies” director Denis Villeneuve, can be felt in the way he sometimes struggles to keep all the film’s balls in the air. Villeneuve is also aided by a cast that’s perfectly in synch with the material.
Taking a cue from the director’s graphic novels, Belgian comicbook artist and occasional production designer Francois Schuiten (“Mr. Nobody,” “The Golden Compass”) conjures a world in which traditional science-fiction elements, such as holograms and space travel, sit side-by-side with retro touches including vinyl records, old phones and darkroom-developed photos. The fascinatingly shaped instruments that Jacob plays deserve special mention, while tribal tattoos and Lady Gaga-esque hairdos also abound. More than a few elements recall the zany world of Luc Besson’s equally spacey “The Fifth Element,” a clear influence here.
Shot on a tight budget and with abundant use of greenscreen, the world Villeneuve puts onscreen nonetheless feels whole and, in the sci-fi context, credible. Visual effects, supervised by Carlos Monzon, are deftly integrated throughout. Sound design and score also rep huge plusses, with the latter, mostly of the mournful/soulful variety, nicely complementing the film’s ideas about music and its relation to time and love.