A musical homage to Marcel Proust, Sylvain Chomet’s Attila Marcel is eye-catching, genre-busting and mad as a bag of frogs. Let’s face the music and dance.
Music, Maestro, Please by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
“We are able to find everything in our memory, which is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison”; it’s the quotation by Marcel Proust which opens Sylvain Chomet’s Attila Marcel. And not only does Proust confer his surname on the film’s chief apothecary, the hallucinogen-peddling neighbour on the fourth floor, the French writer also lends his first name to our hero’s late father – who takes his wrestling name Attila Marcel from a (fictitious) chanson about a man who beats his wife. Proust references though are littered throughout Sylvain Chomet’s Attila Marcel – from the Normandy seaside at Trouville to the tisane and its accompanying madeleine, which pulled the trigger on Proust’s remembrance into things past, but here reworked as a psychedelic therapy to work through a forgotten trauma. And yet with Chomet’s familiar eye for cartoonish frames and gallic quirk, Attila Marcel is more than just one (mute) man in search of lost time.
The plot is simple enough: Paul (Guillaume Gouix) is a thirty-something piano virtuoso, who hasn’t spoken a day in his life since his parents died in front of his very eyes. Traumatised since childhood, he lives a sheltered existence with his brandied cherry swilling aunts Annie (Bernadette Lafont) and Anna (Hélène Vincent), eating patisseries while accompanying their dance lessons and dreaming at his bedside shrine to his mother. Following his blind piano tuner M. Coelho (Luis Rego) who drops a vinyl single in the stairwell, Paul meets Madame Proust (Anne Le Ny), a neighbourhood narcotics necromancer, with an indoors allotment of trippy fruit and doped-up vegetables, who sells once-forgotten memories to her callers over music and a psychotropic tisane. And with Paul desperate to find out what happened to his late parents, it’s not long before he’s taking a trip, quite literally, down memory lane.
But while the influence of Proust may be clear, Attila Marcel is also uniquely Sylvain Chomet. With its put-upon young prodigy and its twin-set of aunts, the film recalls Les Triplettes De Belleville, while Guillaume Gouix’s doe-eyed and Tatiesque performance recalls the delicate (and silent) melancholy of The Illusionist. Attila Marcel is Chomet’s first live-action film, and yet it retains his characteristic cartoonish eye – framing scenes inside Madame Proust’s flat behind vegetables, delighting in the matching (but not identical) dresses of Paul’s aunts, and designed with a very deliberate storyboard of towering Beethoven statues and a baby’s eye view camera. Paul’s all-singing and dancing visions, with mariachi frogs and beach serenades, might come as something of a primary-coloured sugar shock, but they’re also part of Chomet’s own trip. Music.
Attila Marcel begins with the discordant squeaking of a timeworn child’s toy, and via Chopin’s sonatas, Sixties ye-ye, a ukulele and an erhu (Chinese viola), there’s a democratic idea lurking within his cacophony of musical references, that that there’s an instrument, or type of music, for everyone. Chomet’s vision reaches its melodious climax as Paul performs in a competition for piano soloists, where his classical concerto merges with a smoky (froggy) jazz – to breathtaking and groundbreaking effect. Music is Paul’s life, a world of sound away from the pressures of speaking and other people. And yet, when he discovers that his trusty piano is also the dastardly weapon that killed his parents, his violent chord-playing becomes self-mutilating, as the piano cover mangles his fingers. Is the piano really for him? Or is it the ukulele? As Paul finds, in the closing reel, some peace, with a new job as a music teacher, and a new wife, baby and beard.
One of the most impressive scenes however is the boxing ring tango, in which Paul’s parents Attila and La Tigresse fight it out in the ring – a misinterpreted memory of domestic violence perhaps, or a child’s confusion at the difference between fighting and physical love. What makes this scene so extraordinary is its oneiric use of dance – creating an alternate world where movements are softened into dance, as the referee is neatly thrown outside of the ring or as mother wrestles father – a kind of whirling, spinning violence. Despite its live action, Chomet’s Attila Marcel still bears the hallmarked control of the director’s animations – from its Sixties colour palette and POV camera to its song routines and tragicomic story. And what it loses perhaps in visual pleasure, it gains in delicious performances, especially from Guillaume Gouix and Anne Le Ny. It’s (self)-referential and outrageous, but a cosmos that’s quite uniquely Chomet.
Attila Marcel is released on 5th September 2014 in the UK