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 V.20 No.6 | February 10 - 16, 2011 

Film Review

The Illusionist

Magician does a long, slow disappearing act in melancholy animated fable

The Illusionist (2010)

Directed by Sylvain Chomet

Mick Jagger: The earliest years
Mick Jagger: The earliest years
There’s a major David and Goliath matchup in this year’s Oscar race. Wedged between multimillion-dollar, 3-D computer-animated films How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 in the Animated Feature category is the humble, hand-illustrated French film The Illusionist. The film is director Sylvain Chomet’s long-awaited follow up to his 2003 charmer The Triplets of Belleville.

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.

No room for rabbits
No room for rabbits
Here, our protagonist crosses paths with Alice, a sheltered young lass who is instantly enchanted by the magician’s simple acts of prestidigitation. When his gig ends and he presses on, Alice runs away from home to tag along behind him. The mismatched pair drift into Edinburgh, where Tatischeff secures a run at the local music hall. But Alice takes quickly to big-city living and starts to crave all the fancy shoes and trendy dresses she spots in store windows. Desperate to please his pretty young companion, Tatischeff starts to take on additional work to pay for the added expenses.

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.


The Illusionist

Award-winning French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), finally returns with another lovely, hand-animated film. This one's based on a dusty old script from silent film comedian Jacques Tati (Play Time, Mr. Hulot's Holiday). In it, an aged stage magician tours around the last fading remnants of Europe's vaudeville circuit trying to make a living. In Scotland, he attracts the attentions of a sheltered young bar girl who follows him, puppy-dog-style, to Edinburgh. The near silent film is little more than a collection of "bits," but some are quite lovely. This sentimental melodrama doesn't have the energy and zest of Triplets, but it does display a palpable, bittersweet magic. 80 minutes PG. (Opens Monday 5/9)

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