'News From Planet Mars': Berlin Review

News From Planet Mars still 1 - h 2016
Courtesy of Diaphana Films
Life on Mars gets quirky in this partially convincing French dramedy.

Dominik Moll (‘With a Friend Like Harry…’) unveils his fifth feature at the Berlinale.

Exploring a troublesome bromance similar to that of his hit sophomore feature, With a Friend Like Harry…, although one with a very different outcome and tone, writer-director Dominik Moll delivers another offbeat Gallic dramedy in News From Planet Mars, a mildly amusing mid-life crisis saga whose strong performances can’t overcome a scenario that piques our curiosity without ever truly satisfying it. Still, with a cast that includes the terrific Belgian comic actor Francois Damiens (Cowboys) in the lead role, and Gallic nervous-wreck Vincent Macaigne (Two Friends) as the man who foils our hero’s humdrum existence, this Berlinale selection may wind up finding a few takers beyond the Francophone galaxy.

Damiens plays Philippe Mars, a mild-mannered computer programmer about to celebrate his 49th birthday. But when his ex-wife (Lea Drucker) heads off to Brussels, saddling him with his quirky 13-year-old son, Gregoire (Tom Rivoire) and uber-studious daughter, Sarah (Jeanne Guittet), things take a turn for the worse when Philippe starts having issues with office mate Jerome (Macaigne), a sweat-stained, highly erratic nutcase who walks around with a meat cleaver in his knapsack.

How Jerome ever got the job is anyone’s guess, though he quickly loses it when tossing the aforementioned cleaver at his boss, only to wind up slicing Philippe’s ear clear in half. Next thing you know, Jerome shows up at his victim’s doorstep and asks to be put up for a few nights, thus kicking off a chain of wacky events involving such elements as kidnapped frogs, reincarnated parents, spacewalks, explosives, slaughtered baby chickens and a vomiting Chihuahua.

Moll and regular co-writer Gilles Marchand manage to blend all these ingredients with considerable dexterity throughout the film’s first half, maintaining a tragic-comic rhythm that slides off the rails when the story comes to a head in act three. At that point, Philippe’s quest to rid himself of Jerome gets caught up in his desire — whether conscious or not — to be a better dad, and it becomes clear that all the zaniness is meant to push him into a deeper emotional connection with his own kids.

While the intentions are clear and there are a few memorable scenes — including a gag involving a dirty text message Philippe intercepts on his son’s phone — News From Planet Mars still lags in parts and grows tiresome when Jerome’s antics grow out of whack, especially when he invites a fellow mental patient (Veerle Baetens) over for dinner. With so many cuckoos in one nest, not to mention all the dream sequences and day visions, it’s hard to latch onto Philippe’s flailing grasp on reality, making for a film that lacks the wit and tension of Harry, even if Moll maintains his sharp eye for detail.

Working with cinematographer Jean-Francois Hensgens (The White Knights), the director shoots much of the action as if he were helming a thriller, using shadowy widescreen set-ups to convey the haunting sense of chaos that takes hold of Philippe as the narrative unfolds. Intricate production design by Emmanuelle Duplay and a jazzy score by Adrian Johnstone also contribute to the film’s gloomy, off-kilter mood, while editor Margot Meynier keeps the pace relatively smooth despite some snags.

Offering up a subdued performance that underscores his normalcy compared to those around him, Damiens does a fine job playing an average Joe who has to learn the hard way that life is sometimes about getting your hands dirty (or your ear cut off), rather than standing idly by as it happens. Macaigne — who rose to stardom in a number of French mumblecore-style indies — offers up his usual lovable-loser shtick, transforming Jerome into an endearing character despite what an annoying guy he can be.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Diaphana Films, Artemeis Productions, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Francois Damiens, Vincent Macaigne, Veerle Baetens, Jeanne Guittet, Tom Rivoire
Director: Dominik Moll
Screenwriters: Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand
Producer: Michel Saint-Jean
Director of photography: Jean-Francois Hensgens
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Margot Meynier
Composer: Adrian Johnston
Casting director: Agathe Hassenforder
Sales agent: Memento Films International

In French

Not rated, 101 minutes