Reflections on “Attila Marcel” (2013), directed and written by Sylvain Chomet
starring Guillaume Gouix, Anne le Ny, Bernadette Lafont and Hélène Vincent
Traumatised into silence in his youth, Paul is a 33 year old pianist who lives with and is thoroughly spoiled by his two maiden aunts who live in an old block of flats in Paris. His life is governed by habit and he is clearly unfulfilled.
One day, by way of a mutual acquaintance, Paul meets Madame Proust, a hermit-like mysterious neighbour from two floors below who recognises a potential source of his mutism and introduces him to her memory-inducing tea and cake (madeleine). We share several confused memories from his extreme youth (about two years old) and we witness the effect these memories have on him, until finally the complete story of the death of his parents (and the source of his mute-inducing trauma) are revealed.
In the process Paul’s behaviour is altered as he meets a girl and gains recollections until his memory is complete, whereupon he appears to reject the piano (his source of self-expression and employment), but later takes up another musical instrument which will allow him to express himself.
Much criticised in France on its release (several critics felt Chomet had lost his fluidity compared to previous animated efforts), it should be borne in mind that this film was always going to be “different”, “quirky” and even “difficult”. Chomet is clearly an artist who wishes to share his vision and own take on life. His film is comedic, playful and light yet is also thought-provoking and deals with fairly serious themes. Personally, I felt this first “live action” film from Chomet was more focused and accessible than “Belleville Rendez-vous”, with greater clarity of purpose and execution.
Here, Chomet is clearly inspired by Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, and while the film works in its own quirky way it works even better when viewed as a homage to (or as taking its inspiration from) Proust’s novel.
In Proust’s novel forgotten memories are rekindled by the senses – they are brought to mind by taste, sight, smell, touch and hearing. The first of these is probably the most famous, and a memory is brought to mind through the taste of a madeleine cake – clearly referred to in Chomet’s film where tea and cake are used as the means of “regressing” Paul so he can remember events that have so troubled him.
Another motif in “À la recherche du temps perdu” is the idea that it is only at the end of a story or chain of events that you can gain a full perspective of these events. It is only then that you can see the place of a single event in the chain and thus gain a full understanding of what has gone on.
In “Attila Marcel”, we see the effect of recalling various childhood (and distorted) memories separately – his love for his mother, his rejection of his father who appears to have been violent, though eventually we see the whole and understand as Paul sees his father in a different light.
At the piano competition, Paul experiences memory recall without the help of Proust’s tea and cake, an experience which brings about such euphoria that he plays as he has never played before, using influences and approaches he never knew he had in him, but which have been brought out by his recollections and the changes in attitude these bring about.
After the competition, Paul experiences one final recollection, the most devastating and life-changing, and the one which makes him whole, and we understand as he suddenly develops a hatred for the very piano that brought about the death of his parents and deprived him of a normal childhood. Memory (which may be distorted or incomplete) may explain who or what you are in the present. Restored memory may join with the present to make you complete.
In “À la recherche du temps perdu”, art is seen as a way of preserving qualities or events beyond their “natural duration” as through music, writing or painting we draw the essence of what is depicted and thus allow that essence to continue beyond its own time.
In “Attila Marcel”, art is clearly very important and although Paul rejects the piano, it is not long before he takes up another means of musical expression – his neighbour Madame Proust’s ukulele, fulfilling not just his need for self-expression, but also allowing him to hold on to the memory of a good friend.
As in Proust’s novel, the film’s plot and development turn around memory, the part it plays in our psyche and the ways in which sometimes hidden memories are accessed and the effect they then have on our present.
Madame Proust dies prematurely, rather like Proust himself, yet she has touched others’ lives and continues to do so through her influence.
Although I can understand why Chomet was accused of a certain lack of fluidity and clarity, surely this was part of what the film was all about? The mists of uncertainty and obscurity are gradually cleared for the audience as for Paul, and it is all done in a playful, charming and humorous way – no mean feat given the subject matter lurking beneath the surface!
The actors all acquitted themselves admirably and the whole provided a surprising pleasure to me.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .