This short review appeared on The Upcoming website here.
Attila Marcel feels like it should be a cartoon, which comes as no surprise since this is Sylvain Chomet’s first live-action feature. Best known for The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist, Chomet’s style is one of freewheeling invention and madness barely contained within a slim storyline.
Beginning with a quote from Marcel Proust’s “The Captive”, himself hardly a plot-driven writer, about the dual ability of our memories to delight and poison, the film follows Paul (Guillaume Gouix), a mute pianist, as he tries to reclaim a clear picture of a traumatic past. With the help of Madame Proust (Anne Le Ny) and her seemingly drugged-up madeleines, Paul reignites his childhood memories of his deceased parents, mother Anita (Fanny Touron) and his sinister father Attila Marcel (also played by Guillaume Gouix).
The film has many cinematic forbears, from Tati to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and it is full of nice little observations and comic moments. A piano-tuning blind man (Luis Rego) stops to mend a staircase railing that doesn’t make the same noise as the others when he strikes it with his cane and some raindrops inadvertently play some sweet music on a ukulele. Paul’s journeys into his own memories are Chomet’s chief interest, shot in vibrant colours and seen entirely from a baby’s perspective and populated with seaside musical numbers and huge dancing frogs.
Back in the real world, the film is tellingly slight, with a number of minor characters (including a doctor whose true ambition is to be a taxidermist) and incidents that never quite add up to anything. The true story of the film is Paul’s emotional journey through his memories via a drug-fuelled fever dream, which means that whenever he is not under the effect of the madeleines, the film has nothing to do. It speedily tries to add interest through pathos by offering more insight into Madame Proust’s life and health, but it is clearly just killing time until Paul can take another madeleine. Though Paul’s story is ultimately emotionally satisfying at the end of the film, one may be left wondering what happened in the middle.
Though slight, the film is likeable and often surprising. Chomet has an eye for an interesting or odd image and the film does feel pleasantly homemade. It is just a pity that its best moments – the moment with the rain playing the ukulele in particular – feel like non-sequiturs.