Oh, memory, you perditious thing.
Attila Marcel plays off a question that probably everyone (drunken stupor or no) has wondered: “What if I could remember when I was a baby?” For the thirty year-old Paul, orphaned as an infant and left mute from the trauma, those early memories (if they exist) are the some of the only remaining keepsakes he has of his parents, who evidently died in some tragic accident. So begins a journey of self-discovery and—okay, look, he recalls those memories by drinking “herbal” tea from a fast-talking neighbor named Madame Proust. It’s pretty funny.
Guillaume Gouix does a great job inhabiting the whole range of Paul’s situation, in spite of (or because of?) never saying a single word. He never allows Paul to play the victim, even when Paul is clearly put-upon by his overbearing aunts; he is never pitiable because of his disability, simply sympathetic.
Besides “herbal” tea, music is the key to unlocking Paul’s memories, and these scenes inevitably descend into musical numbers. They’re dreamy, rosy-glassed. Direct Sylvain Chomet isn’t afraid to apply pastel lights and nostalgic vignetting to get the point across. But lest things get too cloying, Paul’s memories often end ambiguously. It isn’t all ice cream and sing-alongs; there’s a monster at the end. Plenty of time is spent foreshadowing some dark tension between Paul’s mother (headstrong and virtuous in Paul’s memories, natch) and his father, the titular Attila Marcel, who by Paul’s limited recollection is a pro wrestler with a jealous streak.
As if that wasn’t enough, in the mix are Paul’s aunts, who are pushing him into a pianist’s competition, and the increasingly complicated personal life of Madame Proust. It all comes together eventually; but first the movie has to wander away from Paul for a bit. His story never fully regains its momentum after that, leaving the third act a bit of an exercise in tying up loose ends.
Still, Attila Marcel is a sweet, surprising thing. What begins as Paul’s story turns into a dad-and-lad tale, with a hint of star-crossed-love emerging to pin the whole thing together. It’s ambitious, especially for something that spends so much time looking into the past. But sometimes the only way to go forward is to step back.
Get it? Proust? Get it? ↩