With only 2 films, Sylvain Chomet has become a reference in the field of animated cinema, due to his unique and original style. His third feature film, Attila Marcel, implies a radical change in his career, being his first live-action movie (although he already experienced in this field in one of the short films from Paris Je t'aime), however, his style and quirks permeate along it.
Paul, a mute pianist since he was 2 years old because he witnessed the death of his parents, lives under the care of his aunts, a pair of single women who own a small dance school, and prepare him to compete in talent competitions. One day, by chance he meets Madame Proust, his downstairs neighbor, who runs a secret herbal business; intrigued by Paul's life circumstances, Mme. Proust decides to help him (via a mysterious herbal tea) to dig into their memories and traumas, in order to make him recover his voice.
A recurrent theme in Chomet's short but substantial filmography is loneliness, this primarily through the orphanhood, and the need for bonds of affection that drive the protagonists to overcome adversity; in this case, Paul seems to find in Mme. Proust an outlet to a cold and mundane existence along with his aunts and takes him on an inner journey of self-rediscovery. This without falling into sentimentality or cheap sappiness, but with a very emotional forcefulness and a quirky sense of humor, which is Chomet's trademark, evident since his first short film (The Old lady and the pigeons) and exploited to the fullest in The Triplets of Belleville.
The music is one of the aspects that Chomet has taken the best advantage of, to the extent that it becomes a prominent character of the story, as also happens in this movie; the piano plays a crucial role in the life of Paul, since it is the only mean of expression available for him before he meets Mme. Proust, who is curiously fond of the ukulele. In turn, some of the memories of Paul are manifested through curious and delirious musical numbers, which help Paul to find out a little more about the relationship between his parents before they died (and by the way, Chomet confirms his skill to create vigorous music and full of eccentric joy or a beautiful melancholy).
However, what distinguishes Chomet from the rest is his great ability to tell stories without using words, or using a minimum amount, such as in Belleville or The Illusionist. And while Attila Marcel is not a silent film, the lead character is, and in many cases is difficult to achieve a balance that does not distract the viewer to notice the lack of dialogue (that means to make the viewer attracted to the story from the very start of the movie), which Chomet achieves effortlessly. This is where is necessary to highlight the performance of Guillaume Gouix as Paul, as he manages to create an almost instant empathy using a face and a look worthy of the golden age of silent films. Also Anne Le Ny deserves mention as Mme Proust, who provides a perfect counterbalance to Paul, being the opposite of him: outgoing, outspoken, not afraid to speak his mind, but as lonely as Paul and with her own emotional issues to deal with.
In sum, Attila Marcel shows that the transition of animation directors to real action does not always equate to disastrous results, and is a somewhat modest but charming and stylish film exercise.