Easily the most innocent, family-friendly ode to hallucinogenic drug use since “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Attila Marcel” marks writer-director Sylvain Chomet’s charming first foray into live action feature filmmaking. Though slighter and more crowd-pleasingly sentimental than “The Triplets of Belleville,” the film is very much of a piece with Chomet’s 2003 animated breakout, full of wry humanism, plentiful musical interludes, and production design that’s just this side of phantasmagoric. The whimsical-averse are advised to steer far clear, yet “Attila” ought to connect with French auds (where it opens Nov. 6), and smart distribs could spread its appeal even wider.
Centering on 33-year old Paul (Guillaume Gouix), a lifelong mute and piano prodigy, “Attila Marcel” continues to display Chomet’s career-long fascination with the Two Jacques — Tati and Demy — striking a delicate balance between off-kilter bildungsroman, postmodern musical and outright farce. Impressively played by Gouix, Paul appears to be equal parts high-functioning autistic and Keatonish silent film character marooned in modern day Paris, traumatized into silence after witnessing his parents’ mysterious deaths as a toddler. Since then, he’s lived a childlike life with his two elderly aunts, overbearing dance instructors who dress like matching macaroons.
These aunts — riotously played by Helene Vincent and the late Nouvelle Vague muse Bernadette Lafont, to whom the film is dedicated — keep the perma-dazed Paul on a short leash, hustling him from their dance studio to piano practice to meetings with symphony directors while doling out chouquettes like dog biscuits. Their ultimate plans for Paul extend no further than pressuring him to finally win an annual young pianist competition, which, being in his 30s, he should have aged out of long ago.
Escaping a drab party in his aunts’ gaudily furnished apartment, Paul stumbles into the ramshackle abode of his downstairs neighbor, Madame Proust (Anne Le Ny). A ukulele-playing aged hippie, Proust maintains a massive indoor vegetable garden with which she distills mysterious herbal teas for a devoted clientele: When consumed along with key music from one’s life, her tea allows imbibers to unlock and relive pivotal lost memories. (Naturally, Proust also serves madeleines, if only to mask the bitterness of her brews.)
After a free introductory taste, Paul begins visiting Proust once a week, gradually piecing together long-suppressed impressions of his mother (the dreamily beautiful Fanny Touron) and his father, a preening, vaguely malicious professional wrestler who performs under the name Attila Marcel (Gouix again, utterly transformed by the addition of a goatee and a Jimmy Page wig).
While the whole film sustains an overall tenor of heightened reality, it’s in these flashback sequences that Chomet lets his imagination come truly unmoored. Shooting entirely through Paul’s infant POV and punctuating each trip with a musical number (all tunes were composed by the director, alongside collaborator Franck Monbaylet), Chomet indulges his most cinephilic tendencies with scenes featuring a “Cherbourg”-esque seaside serenade, a hot jazz jam from a band of anthropomorphic frogs, and, in the film’s most delightful setpiece, a cleverly choreographed combination of tango and wrestling.
For both Paul and the audience, scenes set in the straight world start to feel hopelessly dull compared to these flights of fancy, as Paul is forced to evade the mounting suspicions of his aunts and the sweetly undemure advances of a Chinese cellist (Kea Kaing). Yet perhaps that’s the point, and the film does well to broaden its sometimes cartoonish characterizations as it goes on, with Proust in particular gradually evolving from a simple trickster goddess figure into a real flesh-and-blood character.
Considering its dollhouse set decoration, ‘60s-style Francophone pop played on vinyl, and focus on man-children wearing vintage suits a half size too small, “Attila Marcel” can’t help but call a less-arch Wes Anderson to mind. Yet rather than imitation, the similarities are likely due to shared influences and a curatorial attraction to curious people and incidental moments of mundane grace. “Attila” contains both in spades, from a hilariously unsettling amateur taxidermist (Cyril Couton) to the melancholy tinkling of a ukulele left out in the rain.
Chomet isn’t nearly as commanding with a camera as he is with a cel, yet he draws uniformly agreeable performances from his key cast members, all of whom seem to implicitly understand his specific tonal ambitions, and he rarely appears hampered by the constraints of shooting in the physical world. (As if to prove Chomet knows what he’s doing, the pic’s opening credits unspool over a minute-long, disco-scored tracking shot with the camera looking up from inside a stroller.) Cinematographer Antoine Roch deserves a nod for his vivid 35mm photography, as does hardworking production designer Carlos Conti.