Attila Marcel: Toronto Review

'Attila Marcel'

Paul, an orphan since the age of two, lives with his aunts in a Parisian apartment and leads a somewhat sad life as a pianist, until the day he meets the enigmatic Madame Proust.

A live-action feature about memories that beautifully evokes films and songs from the past.

The first live-action feature of "The Triplets of Belleville" director Sylvain Chomet stars Guillaume Gouix, Anne Le Ny and the late Bernadette Lafont.

TORONTO -- French writer-director Sylvain Chomet effortlessly transitions from the animated wonders of his The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist to the live-action marvel that is Attila Marcel, a fanciful story about a silent young piano virtuoso whose downstairs neighbor, the ukulele-playing, Buddhist eco hippie Madame Proust, stuffs him with madeleines -- bien sur -- and serves up a special asparagus brew that helps bring back repressed childhood memories.

Both tonally and esthetically, the film’s clearly a new twig on the family tree that started somewhere before Jacques Tati and branched out to include works from such noted French-language filmmakers as Jacques Demy, Jaco Van Dormael, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry. With its eye-popping production and costume design; its heavily vintage-leaning musical arrangements (co-composed by Chomet); characters breaking out into song and its constant oscillation between wondrous joy and heartfelt melancholy, Marcel fits right in and should be able to drum up significant interest on home turf.

Offshore, this is more of a specialty item, with its insouciant sexual edge (a typical French touch), making the proceedings that otherwise often offer an almost child-like sense of wonderment unsuitable for younger viewers. The film’s marketability abroad could be improved by tightening the occasionally meandering, 106-minute film a good quarter-hour.

Attila opens with a point-of-view shot from a stroller, immediately making it clear that Attila Marcel, a long-haired hippie wearing a leather jacket with his name on it, is actually the father of the film’s protagonist, Paul (actor Guillaume Gouix does double duty as both the father and the grown son). This memory from the late 1970s is one of the few things Paul still remembers in the present; his parents died when he was only two and as a result of what he witnessed, Paul never uttered another word and has repressed everything.

The almost stone-faced 33-year-old, who has beautiful sad eyes, now lives with his late mother’s two elderly sisters (Helene Vincent, Bernadette Lafont), who employ the musically inclined young man as a piano player for their historical dance classes (a perfect excuse for some physical as well as situational comedy).

Paul’s life changes drastically when he meets his downstairs neighbor, the somewhat otherworldly Madame Proust (Anne Le Ny), who welcomes him to her apartment-cum-vegetable patch and offers him a weekly herbal asparagus tea that, in combination with music from his infancy, unlocks memories from the past (to underline the point, the tea is served with madeleine cakes, novelist Marcel Proust’s famous markers for involuntary memories).

Like in his previous work, Chomet uses the straightforward main storyline to give the film a sense of direction but has no qualms about venturing off the main road for asides and subplots that add texture and elicit chuckles or a sense of surprise while adding little to the story’s main thrust. A running gag of sorts involving a doctor (Cyril Couton) who’d prefer to be a taxidermist, for example, is charming but entirely extraneous.  

What finally keeps the entire enterprise together is that it seems entirely appropriate for a story so indebted and in thrall to the past -- from the stylistic influences of other filmmakers and musical artists to the film’s old-fashioned sense of humor -- to explore the importance of memories and the past and how they inform who we are in the present.

Further gluing all the diverse elements together is the impressive performance from Gouix, who, using just his eyes and body language, manages to suggest a very genuine-feeling sense of sadness caused by his character’s lack of understanding what exactly happened in the past. Le Ny also imbues her odd character with real humanity and when Madame Proust disappears, her absence is sorely felt. The other characters are more caricatured, with Vincent and the late Lafont (a French acting legend to whom the film is dedicated) clearly having a ball as the spinster sisters.

Carlos Conti’s production design feels whimsical but organic and is completely in synch with Olivier Beriot’s costume design. Paul’s tight and colorful two-button suits make him look like a child who’s dressed up in his parents’ clothes from 30 years earlier, visually evoking one of the film’s main themes, while the almost-identical garments of his aunts underline how they are practically a two-headed single entity that's about as different from his own mother as could be. The score and songs (most of them explicitly composed for the film) also evoke times past.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production companies: Eurowide Film Production, Pathe Production
Cast: Guillaume Gouix, Anne Le Ny, Bernadette Lafont, Helene Vincent, Fanny Touron, Cyril Couton
Writer-Director: Sylvain Chomet           
Producers: Claudie Ossard, Chris Bolzli
Executive producers: Francois-Xavier Decraene
Director of photography: Antoine Roch
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Music: Sylvain Chomet, Franc Monbaylet
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 106 minutes.