The Illusionist (2010)
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Jacques Tati‘s films, while funny and calm, and all about the gentle art of watching the quiet, incidental workaday foibles of ordinary human beings, are often infused with a streak of palpable melancholy. They are also about how the old world of oceanside hotels, flower shops, local pubs, and friendly flower merchants, is slowly giving away to a sterile, encroaching urbanization. In “M. Hulot’s Holiday,” (1953) we see the Tati’s title character on vacation, having fun, playing games with children, and the inevitable parting from a beloved seaside resort. In “Mon Oncle” (1958) we see Hulot entertaining his nephew in the “old” world, which stands in stark contrast to his sister’s ultra-modern and ultra-sterile techno-home. In “Playtime” (1967), we only see reflections of famous French landmarks, and the old world is only represented by a single old lady selling flowers on a streetcorner.
“Playtime” was a hugely ambitious project, and Tati built an entire city in which to film his hugely impressive, masterful endeavor. The film was so expensive and took so long to shoot, however, that it effectively ruined his credibility and took down a promising career. Tati already suffered from depression at this point in his life, and it was about at this time when he wrote the screenplay for “The Illusionist,” a new animated film that has just been brought to life by animator and Tati fan Sylvain Chomet, director of the wonderfully funky “The Triplets of Belleville.” The result is decidedly of Tati’s world, and captures the old magic again. Chomet’s frills-free, funky, hand-drawn animation is perfectly suited to Tati’s sensibilities. It’s also the most tragic of any of Tati’s stories, and will leave you with a painful goodbye to a master’s work, akin to having to move away from a childhood home.
“The Illusionist” follows the unnamed title magician, a hard-working and talented man, who is clearly at the end of his career. He lives out of a suitcase, and his act is so streamlined, he seems to go through the motions automatically. He has even managed to tame (mostly) the violent tendencies of his seemingly carnivorous rabbit. He is performing to increasingly smaller audiences, and they seem decreasingly interested in his tricks. He is often booked after more “modern” acts, like flouncy-haired rock stars, and plays to bored children and their flinching grandmothers. The magician looks like Tati, and Chomet manages to capture Tati’s small physical peculiarities. Chomet, as proven by both his films, can be called a master of small incidental action in animation that add a warm, fireside verisimilitude to his characters; they have exaggerated features, but they interact with their world in a palpable way.
Indeed, this is the kind of film that could not have worked using CGI. In the comparatively fast-paced and often-action-driven CGI style, every action seems to have a direct purpose. All the movement in a CGI film is programmed and thought out well ahead of time, making for an inorganic feeling. With Chomet’s films (and Miyazaki’s and Kon’s), there are moments where characters say, merely sit, or when they simply shift about uncomfortably in their chairs, that feel like they grew organically from the animator’s pencil.
Our hero is invited by a Scot to come to his hometown way out on a foggy island, where he is asked to perform for a room full of happy drunks. It is there that he meets a naïve and wide-eyed teenage girl, working in an inn. He is a kind and gentle soul, and he buys this girl a pair of new shoes. This is enough for her, and we soon find that she’s stowed away with the magician, and it’s not long before they find themselves living together in am Edinburgh hotel. Their relationship only skirts around the possibility of romance, cleaving much closer to a father/daughter relationship.
The film is largely without dialogue. The implication seems to be that the girl actually believes in the magical powers of the illusionist. He, unwilling to shatter her illusions, has to sneak out of the hotel room and take night jobs in order to support this girl. She is blissfully unaware of the burden she has caused, but it so very delighted to be presented with the lovely new fashions that the illusionist provides for her. This seems to be the general push-pull arrangement of any parenting situation.
There is one very clever scene where our hero stumbles down a street, and accidentally wanders into a local movie theater. Very briefly, we see live-action footage of “Mon Oncle.”
Eventually the strain reaches a point where the two must part, and the parting is one of the more tragic in recent memory. Like the end of 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” this is a film about speaking as a child and understanding as a child, and becoming a man, and putting away childish things. Children will be taken to this film, and I am unsure as to how children will react to it. Surely, some of the kiddies raised on 3-D CGI action comedies will shift restlessly in their seats. Most others may find the ending too sad. This is definitely a film that will bring tears to some eyes.
“The Illusionist” is beautiful. It’s color palate is a calming, warm selection of burgundy, yellow, brown, and gold. The fog is gray and turquoise, and the skies are misty. This is no kid-friendly crayon box of hypercharged brightness. This is a calming study of old-world charm. Most of the actions seem incidental, which is a triumph of animation. This is a meditation. A beautiful one.