(aka, Lent in the Month of March, Mars en carême)
Think of it as a French version of Local Hero — but with Martians.
I suppose it would help if I explained that I happen to own a couple of books on Science Fiction Film from the 1970s — after 2001 and The Planet of the Apes, but before Star Wars, Close Encounters and Alien changed everything. Perhaps the most interesting of these is one by Phillip Strick, simply titled “Science Fiction Movies.”
Strick lists just about anything he can shoehorn into science fiction — like Last Year at Marienbad — even if he has to jump up on down on them a few times to get them into place. He includes a lot of very rare and tres cool 60s and 70s European films. It’s taken me a long time and a bit of work, but I have gradually caught up with most of the films on his list.
Don’t Play with Martians has proved far more difficult than most of them. I suppose this is because it is a light and playful comedy without any powerhouse stars. Nor does it fit in all that well with the science fiction films being made during the Sixties (which, admittedly were a rather strange lot). After all, it starts out as a fish-out-of-water comedy and the Martians don’t even show up until halfway through.
René Mastier (the ever-reliable Jean Rochefort) would probably have to work a lot harder at his job as a reporter to be called lazy. Even worse, he has an unfortunate tendency to miss the obvious in his stories.
Fortunately, however, his Uncle owns the paper, so René has never actually needed to do his job. But his boss has finally decided that he’s had enough, and is sending him out on one last job, which he has to succeed at — or get fired.
And what’s worse, he’s not going to Bali as he thought, but to a tiny Island off the coast of Brittany. It might be quite nice in the summer but which is absolutely freezing in March, and he has the unenviable job of reporting on a young girl who is about to give birth to quintuplets.
It’s hardly a glamorous job, but he’s been given all the communications gear available so he can get in touch instantly when the joyous event finally happens. Only the local handyman dumps it all in the sea, and the local nurse sends a gag message which convinces his boss that six Martians have landed on the island.
And with the island cut off from all communications to the outside world thanks to a storm, René hears a radio broadcast announcing the coming of the Martians and that vast numbers of people are about to descend on them.
Which is the moment when the Martians arrive, looking for those six Martians…
When René and his photographer first arrive on the island, the natives treat them almost as if they were Martians (which is not much of a surprise as they look utterly absurd walking down the main street in the little town, as René has a bright rose sportscoat and his partner has one in a mustard yellow fabric with red and black lines, which looks like it should have been used to upholster a sofa instead). However, the villagers barely seem to notice the so-called Martians (who are actually from a planet called Gamma in another Galaxy) despite their golden helmets and uniforms, their golden skin and their cats’ eyes. Admittedly it isn’t clear whether they can see the new arrivals clearly or not, as they refer to them as men (at times handsome men) even though the actors playing them are all obviously women.
While it takes a little while to get René to the island and a fair amount of time for the Martians to show up after that, the time is put to good use to introduce us to the characters and the island and its people, and to build up the increasingly goofy situation. Perhaps my favorite is the lovely Maryvonne (Macha Méril), the island’s social worker and fresh air fiend, who opens the windows of every room she enters, even the midst of a raging storm.
I was mildly surprised to learn that Don’t Play with Martians started as a 1962 novel, Les sextuplés de Loqmaria, by Michel Labry. However, what probably won’t come as a surprise is that the effects are entirely minimal and the alien saucer remains on top of a distant hill throughout.
I enjoyed this one. It isn’t a masterpiece or a classic, but it is a clever, goofy comedy, which revels in the absurd and enjoys itself, playing games with the audience with a twinkle in its eye. In particular, watch for the circle in the grass left by the saucer when it leaves — and the marvelous visual explanation for that circle which comes onscreen only a moment later.
As always, when my quest for nearly forgotten films leads me to enjoyable minor treasures like Don’t Play with Martians, it seems a tragedy that no one either remembers nor sells this film. In fact, it proved extremely difficult to find, and I don’t think there are any subtitles out there for the original French version.
Fortunately the one and only Jon Whitehead of Rarefilmm found an excellent dubbed copy of the film for me. I only wish that more people could see it.
In the meantime, check out all the interesting films on Jon’s site. You’re not likely to find most of them anywhere else!