When you love a filmmaker, it’s always exciting to see them stretch outside of their comfort zone. In the case of Sylvain Chomet, there was something undeniably fascinating about the idea of the man who made Triplets Of Bellville and The Illusionist trying his hand at a live-action filmmaker this year at The Toronto International Film Festival. After all, his aesthetic is so distinct, yet still identifiably based on the real world that it was easy to imagine Chomet being one of those live-action cartoon directors like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, or even his countryman Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Sadly, based on his live action debut Attila Marcel, it might be best if Chomet sticks to the animation arena. Maybe it’s just that the script and concept for this were the misfire regardless of format, but even so Chomet’s sense of whimsy doesn’t seem to fly when applied to real people and locations. Hit the jump if you want to find out why, you lucky so and so.
The film is about a mute manchild named Paul (Guillaume Gouix) who was brought up by a pair of overbearing and identically dressed aunts (yep, it’s that kind of movie). Now 33, he spends his days wondering around aimlessly in search of purpose. Oddly, he finds it after meeting a neighbor named Mme Proust (Anne Le Ny) who makes special disgusting tasting teas that forces whoever drinks them to hallucinate about their past. Suddenly Paul starts getting glimpses of his mother in strange flashback sequences that seemingly always contain a musical number (yep, it’s that kind of movie as well). These hallucinogenic breaks from the real world suddenly make Paul become more extroverted in life and cause him to develop a interest and unexpected skill in playing the piano. Maybe, just maybe, the guy will become a real, live grown up after all.
The tone of the movie is somewhere between Amelie and Jacques Tati (whose unfilmed screenplay Chomet previously animated in The Illusionist). Unfortunately it’s not as magical a project as that sounds and about ten times too whimsical. Something about Attila Marcel just feels off from the first frame to the last. It’s too calculated, too quirky, too silly, and just trying too hard to please in every way until it becomes grating (kind of like that friend you had in Grade 3 who you stopped talking to). Maybe Chomet was so excited to establish himself in live action that he decided to do every idea he every dreamed of trying in a film all at once and in every scene. The cuteness becomes grating, the jokes never get laughs, the thing just flops and sits there. It looks pretty enough and has enough ideas at play at all times to suggest there’s something shoved in there worth enjoying, but whatever that thing is just seems impossible to find.
That said, Gouix is admittedly quite good in the deadpan comedic silence lead role. His face bears and unmistakable resemblance to Buster Keaton and it’s impossible that was lost on Chomet when he offered Gouix the lead. He’s charming and befuddled in all the right ways and his low-key performance mixes with the over-the-top style from the director and every art department well. The film is certainly fun to look at, with each frame crammed with nuances and details. Trouble is that the movie offers too much of a good thing. Sure it’s pretty and the musical numbers are well choreographed. It’s just hard to care about those things when they’re combined into a deeply mediocre story.
Maybe part of the film’s failure comes down to the fact that Chomet was born to animate and his style just doesn’t fit live action. It should though. It’s not as if Chomet’s animated films were completely divorced from reality. Yet, robbed of that format, Chomet has gone out of his way to cram in as many charming ideas and interludes as possible hoping that the audience will eventually be overwhelmed with sweetness and concede that they like the movie. That won’t be happening anytime soon though. The film is a drag too sit through and for a comedy, that’s a pretty unforgivable sin. I can’t help but feel the movie wouldn’t seem so arch and overdone if it were animated, but at the same time I wouldn’t completely ban Chomet from doing live action again. Maybe this idea was just wrong in any format. Regardless, the film is a wiff for the director after two triumphs. It was inevitable that would happen eventually and now it’s time for the filmmaker to literally go back to the drawing board.