Sylvain Chomet’s films all pulsate to their soundtracks, and ‘Attila Marcel’, although the animator’s first proper foray into live action, is no exception. Here, music provides the timing for jokes, the context for some memorable visual set pieces, and – most importantly – the hook with which the protagonist fishes out the memories deeply submerged in his subconscious. Paul (new face Guillaume Gouix) is an unhappy teenage pianist who has grown up mute, after suffering the trauma of witnessing his parents’ deaths as a baby. When a batty old neighbour force-feeds him a magic potion that bears the power to recall memories, he begins to confront his repressed fears in a string of wildly inventive dream sequences – a jazz band staffed by giant frog puppets is a highlight.
Fans of Chomet’s animations – notably ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ – will note that his endearingly grotesque stock characters (eccentric twins, big dogs, wizened grannies) are present and correct, as is his dark satirical edge. If ‘Attila Marcel’ evokes the early films of his compatriots Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry, which also run riot with music, animation and gallows humour, then it is all the more welcome for appearing as those two languish in creative limbo. Yet, as often with Chomet, the offbeat comedy also threatens to suffocate the film, seeping into every scene and nipping any attempts at characterisation or emotional resonance in the bud. It’s as if the director struggles to take his own subject matter seriously – at its worst, ‘Attila Marcel’ comes across as a bizarre spoof of Harry Potter and his Pensieve. Could it be that his caricaturist style doesn’t sit easily with the expressive potential of real humans? But when he's this funny, will people care?