The first live-action film from Triplets of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet, Attila Marcel is a captivating story of self-discovery. Bright and whimsical, the film fluctuates between exquisite piano solos and quirky musical numbers. Punctuated with heartbreaking sincerity, this venture into the depths of repressed memory truly captivates.
The film focuses on Paul, a 33-year-old mute and gifted pianist. Having lived with his oppressive aunts since the mysterious death of his parents as a toddler, he’s dutifully followed the life plan they’ve laid out for him. That is, until a chance encounter with his eccentric neighbour, Madame Proust, unearths long forgotten memories. Using music and an array of expertly crafted hallucinogenic teas, Proust attempts to help Paul solve the mystery of what happened to his parents so long ago.
Played exquisitely by Guillaume Gouix, Paul appears to be a hybrid of Buster Keaton with Mr. Bean mannerisms and dash of Amélie Poulain’s whimsy. Innocently charming, he appears to have lived into the dependency his eccentric aunts have forced upon him. Portrayed as borderline autistic at the film’s opening, he gradually earns his autonomy as he unlocks the secrets of his oppressed memory.
Doing double duty as Paul and his father, Marcel, Gouix tackles the roles beautifully. As Marcel, he is an ambiguous character. Much is left to the imagination with regards to his role as husband and father. It’s unclear until near the end of the film what part Marcel played in his and his wife’s deaths. As a result, we drift in and out of Paul’s memory with the same prejudices and preconceived notions.
As Paul, Gouix is astonishing. At times his performance is visceral, breaking through the Keaton-esque façade to allow a torrential flood of tears and emotion. Other times his body language is so sharp and pitch-perfect you forget he hasn’t said a word.
Becoming more expressive as the film progresses, we see the emotional growth and maturity of those surrounding him. His oppressive aunts (played hilariously by the late Bernadette Lafont and Hélène Vincent) transition from controlling façades of perfection to regretful and apologetic balls of emotion by the film’s end. Likewise, Madame Proust (played by the enchanting Ann Le Ny) begins as a defensive woman with her guard as high as possible, eventually allowing her vulnerability to pour through.
What’s so touching about Attila Marcel is the rawness of its depiction of memory. We create fantasies around the past. Often times attempting to forget the pain, we allow our recollection to become cloudy in order to cope. But unlike its representation here, there is no tea to unearth the forgotten, and though the passage of time may ease the pain of the past, its impact will always linger. Attila Marcel is about coming to terms with the pain of the past, and learning to live with that part of ourselves. The end result surpasses the whimsy of the film’s opening, and becomes an elegant mix of humility, heart, and sincerity.