Where do you stand when it comes to Belleville Rendez-vous and The Illusionist director Sylvain Chomet's feature-length live-action debut? Do you find it a sweet, ingenious variation on the themes brought up on the director's previous animation features, an insufferable piece of elaborate whimsy in the vein of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Michel Gondry? Or both at the same time?
Whatever it is, there's little doubting that Mr. Chomet's transition from animation to live action is technically very well achieved, and that his peculiar retro sensibility remains pretty much intact. Attila Marcel may indeed be slight and whimsical, its plot clearly under-cooked for a nearly two-hour film, but it more than makes up for it through the director's control of tone and texture and the heart he puts into his outlandish tale of a thirty-something man-child's belated coming-of-age.
That man is Paul (Guillaume Gouix), orphaned at two and raised by his two snobbish spinster aunts (Bernadette Lafont and Hélène Vincent) to be a concert pianist. Paul has little memory of his parents and has never uttered a word since their death; in Mr. Gouix's impeccably controlled, dialogue-free performance, he's an odd but winning mix of Pee-Wee Herman, Jacques Tati and The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper, a man-child blissfully unaware of anything outside his routine and a lover of cream puffs.
One day, he bumps inside the downstairs neighbour's seemingly unfinished and illegal flat; this is Madame Proust (a gleeful, forceful Anne le Ny), an aging old hippie who introduces Paul to her line in herbal-tea therapy (complete with madeleine), effectively unlocking repressed memories. Assuming an almost-motherly figure, Madame Proust is the trigger for Paul's progressive understanding of himself, his family and the world about him, helping him make sense of his origins.
This is where the film's title comes in - Attila Marcel being the stage name of the wrestler father he lost at two, filched from an old popular song. Needless to say, this being Mr. Chomet's universe, the song is a period ersatz that actually made a cameo appearance ten years ago in Belleville Rendez-Vous and reappears here; and everything in Attila Marcel reeks of the director's passion for the unique world-building of France's most inventive, whimsical filmmakers of the 20th century, Jacques Tati and Jacques Demy.
From Tati come the love for silent character comedy and elaborate Heath Robinson chains of cause and effect: after all, his leading character never utters a word and must exist purely through physical performance, just like Mr. Hulot. From Demy the transcendence of reality through music and fantasy, and the sweet melancholy contradictions underlying it, with Attila Marcel becoming a sort of wannabe jukebox musical of Paul's childhood pleasures (shot in openly artificial studio sets).
It's that anchor in sweetness and naïveté, in the hope for something better and in the sheer pleasure of transmitting it, that drives Mr. Chomet's filmmaking - after all, pretty much all his films deal with artists and performers who bring joy and pleasure to others from the most unlikely places. While Attila Marcel does not place him in the same breath as Messrs. Tati and Demy (there are still some scriptwriting foibles to settle) it does clearly put him in their lineage, not only thematically but also in the visual and formal rigour he brings to his lovingly skewed, off-centred storytelling. Attila Marcel is a loving, ingenious flight of fancy.
Cast Guillaume Gouix, Anne le Ny, Bernadette Lafont, Hélène Vincent, Luis Rego, Jean-Claude Dreyfus
Director and screenwriter Sylvain Chomet; cinematographer Antoine Rich (colour); composers Mr. Chomet and Franck Monbaylet; designer Carlos Conti; costumes Olivier Bériot; editor Simon Jacquet; effects supervisor Jean-Pierre Bouchet; producers Claudie Ossard and Chris Bolzli; production companies Eurowide Film Production, Pathé Production, France 3 Cinéma and Appaloosa Développement
Screened February 6th 2015, Lisbon (DVD screener)