Magician does a long, slow disappearing act in melancholy animated fable
The Illusionist (2010)
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
At first glance, fans of Chomet’s earlier work might find themselves a bit put off. The Illusionist has none of the whimsy or energy of that Jazz Age whirligig, Triplets. In fact, The Illusionist began life as a script by French film icon Jacques Tati. Tati died before shooting a live-action version, and Chomet has lovingly adapted it to the animated milieu—apparently at the behest of Tati’s daughter. Tati was a silent film comedian, much in the mold of Charlie Chaplin—only with more sentiment and better suits. Those familiar with his most famous works (Mon Oncle, Play Time, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) will instantly be at home with the wistful, nostalgic tone of The Illusionist.
Though not exactly a silent film, The Illusionist operates largely sans dialogue. It is the late ’50s, and we are introduced to Monsieur Tatischeff (Tati’s real name). Tatischeff is the illusionist of the title, a third-rate French magician touring around Europe’s dying music hall (what we Americans call vaudeville) circuit. In postwar Europe, venues are rapidly being taken over by the growing craze known as rock ’n’ roll. Quaint, old-school stage performers like Tatischeff are finding themselves decreasingly popular with modern audiences. Desperate for work, Tatischeff takes a job in a tiny pub in rural Scotland. The place is so rural that the town’s first electric lightbulb is installed for Tatischeff’s performance—garnering nearly as much applause as the magician himself.
The Illusionist is somber and sentimental, but it’s never less than lovely. The animation is a wonder. Edinburgh manages to look both bleak and gorgeous with its limited range of greens and browns. There are moments when the animated images reach a Hayao Miyazaki-level of perfection (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke). The main character himself is rendered in the same stoic, overly tall frame that Tati himself had. Chomet lends incredible poise and dignity to the character, a man in the process of silently accepting his own obsolescence. That attention to detail goes a long way toward bringing this story to life.
Still, at a slim 80 minutes, the film is little more than a melancholy mood piece. Tati’s script is less of a story and more of a collection of “bits”—some of which work, some of which don’t. Having passed through several hands over the decades, it’s difficult to grasp all of Tati’s original intent. The relationship between Tatischeff and Alice remains elusive. Is she just naive? Is he in love? A little research reveals that Tati wrote the film as a semi-autobiographical look at his relationship with his eldest daughter. But the connection between the two characters in the film remains muddy. Not quite paternal, not quite sexual, it leaves us with some conflicted emotions. The parts that are clear, though—that of a dying art form, a changing era—shine through with strong, sad emotion. There is a bittersweet magic at work here. But it’s best left to audience members who don’t require computer animation or 3-D glasses to keep them riveted to movie screens.