A French Film Festival Dispatch: Atilla Marcel, The Extraordinary Voyage (with A Trip to the Moon)

FILM, Film Festivals
img_attila1At the Alliance Française French Film Festival, a new film by Sylvain Chomet, plus the journey of George Méliès’s iconic 1902 fantasy, from inception to restoration.

For a certain brand of cinephile, autumn in New Zealand is recognised not by the change in temperature but by the beginning of festival season, and the Alliance Française French Film Festival generally gets things started. I say “certain brand” because I’ve noted a tendency of many fellow movie lovers to overlook the proliferating offshoot festivals in general, and to dismiss the French Film Festival in particular without so much as a glance at the programme. And while it’s true that past years have proven disappointingly weighted towards the conventional and crowd-pleasing, recent editions of the festival have found room for films such as Mia Hansen-Love’s All Is Forgiven, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance, and Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday, all of which would be equally at home in the One Festival To Rule Them All.

Apart from NZIFF returnee The House of Radio, there’s no clearer example this year than Sylvain Chomet’s Atilla Marcel.I last encountered Chomet when his sadly beautiful The Illusionist screened at the Civic during a prior NZIFF, a minor-key follow-up to the outsized The Triplets of Belleville (aka Belleville Rendezvous). Certainly, Chomet’s step from animation to live-action would have been equally at home at the Embassy in July. Nonetheless, I approached it with a degree of caution, as Chomet’s ability to translate his aesthetic to the real world was up for debate. Would he fall prey to a certain tendency in French cinema, where boatloads of whimsy and zaniness pummel the viewer into numbness? (I should mention that I didn’t enjoy the madcap freneticism of Zazie dans le Mètro nearly as much as my fellow Lumière writer Brannavan Gnanalingam, although his article makes me suspect I’ve missed quite a bit on a first viewing; regardless, recent work by Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet leap to mind as cautionary examples of this tendency.)

A long caveat for a moot point. On the page, Atilla Marcel—the story of 33-year old depressed mute pianist Paul (played by Guillaume Gouix, equal parts Elijah Wood and Vincent Cassel) who has lived with his aunts since the age of two after losing his parents at a very young age, only to start having remembrances of things past thanks to neighbourly Mrs. Proust and her madelines—has all the ingredients for a whimsy overload. But in practice, Atilla Marcel is surprisingly digestible. Most of the film takes place in the elegantly drab present, quietly paced and with performances that remain at a comfortable level on the volume dial, even for the broader characters. The two aunts in particular are perfectly pitched: always clad identically, but not so precise in their mirroring as to become merely a joke, nor so unsubtle in their hectoring as to become shrill. Chomet is quite content to underplay his more absurdist jokes (my favourite: a blind piano tuner adjusting a staircase railing so that all the bars make the same-pitch clang against his cane). While he doesn’t demonstrate the rigour of Tati, Chomet certainly shares a level of understatement.

img_attila2Nor is Atilla Marcel so overly fastidious as to remove life. While there’s a deeply considered level of set design and costume, Chomet avoids the symmetrical compositions of Wes Anderson and instead employs an almost under-inflected visual style, grounding the absurdism and stylisation in a more conventional pace and tone. If I went in dreading that Chomet’s animator eyes might produce an oh-so-precious level of precision, I came out thinking that a tiny bit more might have helped juice some of the jokes. An encounter between a very small dog and a very large dog on a staircase would have brought belly-laughs in an animated setting; here, it gets a quiet smile. But, in general, it’s the sort of comedy that’s more about the consistent smile and the sporadic laugh; it’s rare that the big jokes bomb, and even Chomet’s riskiest moves (such as a racist tirade at the dinner table, or a doctor-cum-frustrated taxidermist) generally pay off in unexpected and rich ways that go well beyond a simple punch line or absurdist non sequitur.

Atilla Marcel largely saves its bombast for Paul’s memories of the past, which appear at first to be a vehicle for candy-coloured silliness and increasingly extravagant musical numbers. But these also provide a chance to meet his parents, a beloved mother and despised wrestler father (the latter also played by an unrecognisable Gouix, in an astounding performance coup). And it’s here that unexpectedly real moments of emotion slide into Chomet’s slow-to-unfold tale. But while this deliberation keeps the viewer on his toes, it may also annoy some: it takes a long time for anything resembling a story to actually unfold, and when it does, the sheer number of clichés deployed becomes slightly distressing (particularly the Obligatory Love Interest, who gets at least a moderately clever setup, only to wane into background plot necessity all too quickly).

Still, if Atilla Marcel is perhaps the weakest of Chomet’s three features, that’s hardly the insult it sounds. It’s most assuredly a worthy addition to Chomet’s filmography and a solid night out at the movies. The sold-out crowd at the Embassy’s Deluxe cinema seemed to concur. 

img_triptothemoonFlights of fancy, and of fantasy, date back to the birth of cinema, as The Extraordinary Voyage is at great pains to point out. This exploration of the original film fantasist George Méliès and his iconic 1902 short A Trip To The Moon arrives on our shores three years after its production and two years after its U.S. theatrical release. This helps explain why, despite Scorsese’s Hugo covering much of the same terrain, it treats the history of Méliès as an underexposed, obscure corner of cinematic history.

In general, The Extraordinary Voyage is tilted more towards audiences who may not know much of early cinema. If you know who the Lumière Brothers are, or that film was hand-tinted to create the first colour films, you won’t learn much in the first half of the film. But that’s not to say you won’t enjoy it, as much of the film is illustrated with early cinema: the work of Méliès, of course, but also Lumière, and possibly others (quite a few films aren’t credited). Despite my familiarity with hand-tinting, a leisurely three minute montage showcasing beautiful examples was rapturous. It’s Méliès who gets the lion’s share of attention, of course, with his relentless experiments using early special effects, particularly the endless multiplication of part or all of himself on-screen. Regardless of how dated the effects are, they’re still a joy to see, particularly on the giant Embassy screen, home nowadays to the sort of special-effects spectaculars that Méliès pioneered more than a century prior.

img_extraordinaryvoyageAbout halfway through the film, having name-checked many of the important elements of the Méliès tragedy (American exploitation, quitting film, burning his prints) without a clear throughline, the focus of the storytelling seems to have dissipated. However, it turns out that the film has slightly buried its own lead. In short: many of Méliès’s films were lost[1], and hand-tinted versions were especially rare, therefore the discovery 20 years ago of an original hand-tinted print of A Trip to the Moon was a huge find. It was also a nightmare to recover. It’s here that I perked up at the content, but also where those who aren’t interested in the finer points of film restoration might start drifting. Short version for me, however: holy crap, I can’t believe this exists.

The film’s finale is the presentation of the restored tinted version of A Trip to the Moon in full, which I’d never seen. It is of course a pleasure, even if its most outsized moments have been strip-mined in the scenes leading up to it (and even if scenes such as the initial “hey guys, let’s go to the moon” group discussion feel horribly distended). My only caveat about this restoration would be the score by Air, which dissolved into incongruous 70s funkiness at points and was also pummelingly loud. I wasn’t the only one covering their ears for safety as the end credits rolled.

Regardless, a chance to experience the Méliès magic on the big screen is worthy of any festival; don’t miss it if you have even the vaguest interest.

These and other films in the Alliance Française French Film Festival programme screen in various centres nationwide until April 23.

[1] The exact number is open to debate, and obviously new finds are being made all the time, but the film fudges a bit here by noting that, at the time of a tribute screening in the late 1920’s, only eight< films were available. This makes the discovery at the heart of the film seem exceptionally significant; however, unmentioned is the fact that there are currently almost 200 of Méliès’s films available.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Doug Dillaman is an American expatriate living in Auckland. He wrote and directed the feature film Jake. He is writing his first novel, edits television for a living, and plays drums for Climate Change.