Few backdrops are prettier than those found in Sylvain Chomet’s British-French animated film The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste, 2010). I am already planning to re-watch this lovely comedy/drama so as to not have to mind the mostly silent characters’ expressions and gestures; which, admittedly, have a captivation all their own.
Here are links to both Roger Ebert’s Review and NY Times’ Manohla Dargis’ Review “Conjuring a Magical Relationship.” Besides being excellent (as usual), they provide more information behind Sylvain Chomet’s adaptation of The Illusionist and its first creator Jacques Tati—the late French Actor and Filmmaker responsible for Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958) among others.
Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff handed Sylvain Chomet (of the remarkable The Triplets of Belleville) the never-produced screenplay Tati wrote in the 1950s (pre-Mr. Hulot). The Illusionist is drawn from the inspiration of Tati’s character Mr. Hulot. Fans note this right away, but those unfamiliar will be intrigued by a late scene where The Illusionist enters a Cinema that is showing Mon Oncle. The sequence is fantastic, so beautiful done. Yes, I think I did clap in absolute delight.
Not understanding the historical situation of Jacques Tati does not harm the film. As Ebert insists (as do others) The Illusionist is a Chomet film, and it does stand on its own legs story-wise. Having viewed the film with only the knowledge that it won a Golden Globe earlier this year, I can easily agree.
The Illusionist is suffering the decline of interest in Magic Shows as the Theaters become packed with screaming female fans mad for boy bands. His failing career moves him from one Theater to the next, one city to the next until he takes a desperate gig in Scotland. He finds a crowd that loves him as well as a young fan Alice that would follow him everywhere, especially after he is mysteriously moved to buy the young woman new shoes.
Between the ragged state of Alice’s boots and her sneaking after him onto a boat south, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) came to mind. This reminiscence (likely unintentional) was aided by the silent film aspect to The Illusionist. A musical score carries the audience along; and murmurs, the occasional words, are all sound effects that support rather than dominate the film’s ability to tell a story. The result is refreshing and contextually brilliant.
There were a few French words and a few Gaelic mumbles we didn’t understand, and for a moment I thought I should have found subtitles, but I didn’t feel at a loss. Natalya (11) and I could read the film beautifully.
The Illusionist pays for Alice’s tickets and when they arrive in Edinburgh at her request, and he covers their room and board at an ‘extended stay’ where other performance artists are camped: some acrobats, a ventriloquist, and a suicidal clown. When Alice lingers over a coat in a shop window, he purchases it for her. When she sees pretty heels? the same. He even gets a ‘second’ job to support her growing desires, let alone put food on the table. His sacrifices, his humiliations are somewhat painful and I was driven to ask why? Why is helping this blossoming young woman with whom he harbors an awkward affection. Am I that jaded to think, “that’s sweet” isn’t explanation enough. He certainly doesn’t seem so lonely as to need the company, as other performers seem to embody.
The film is deft in creating a platonic relationship between Alice and The Illusionist. She is somewhat in awe of him, and she cares for their rooms, but she is also emerging from girlhood to womanhood, from the rural outliers to urban sophistication. She saw The Illusionist as a way out of her impoverished life—which sounds manipulative in a way for which her naiveté doesn’t seem to account. The Illusionist cannot provide for this girl, though he tries, and it is in the more subtle touches that the explanation for ‘why he even tries’ is revealed. It is in the photograph he lingers over, the one he places on dressing room mirrors and holds while on the train. The one left unfocused and whose revelation comes at the end.
The Illusionist is a terribly melancholy sort of film. The comedy adds the necessary balance to a film that is otherwise completely depressing. There is no place for the Illusionist and his cohorts. He is taken advantage of and robbed and set adrift. He is haunted by a loss. He is inept at practical work, and is mocked during attempts at reinventing the impractical. The young woman’s clumsy attempts to blossom into the sophisticated and romanced conclusion is sweet, but her dependence upon men is an underlying heartache. Some will find a bit of hopefulness with the ending, with Alice especially. The world that is changing and growing gets better and better for women, we know. I just felt the uncertainty, and sadness.
Alice’s appearance and the subsequent ending felt like a fantasy the Illusionist was able to play out. That he could raise her from obscurity and hopeless repetition and deliver her into the arms of the future where she belongs, is provided for, and loved. Those arms are not his however, he is only temporal. He is old. He is a father. And he is sometimes ill-equipped. He is done before the story plays out, going so far as to hide. He is as confused as the audience members as to when the relationship should end and go its separate ways.
In the train, with the little brunette girl drawing: she loses her pencil and the illusionist is going to ignore her. The scene shifts to an envelope. We return. He picks up the stubby pencil and tucks it and his similar but less used pencil in his sleeve. For a moment you think he will gift the girl a new pencil, magically restore it. But he doesn’t. He returns the pencil they both knew to her. The Illusionist has reached a kind of conclusion. The world has moved on without him. There is little he can do about it. The Illusionist is and has been, for all his fancy, mostly pragmatic.–or was this an attempt to be so?
there is a lot of movement in the film, vehicles and traffic and traveling and such.
The juxtaposition of Illusion and Reality in The Illusionist is marvelously complex. Because there is little dialog to confirm impressions, the audience must be patient, and alert. The length of the film (80 minutes) is not an added difficulty, and the animation is perfectly suited–a perfect venue. As Ebert notes, “Chomet has drawn it with a lightness and beauty worthy of an older, sadder Miyazaki story. Animation suits it. Live action would overwhelm its delicate fancy with realism.” Chomet and company’s control, their precision, is necessary—and lovely. The effect is the production of charmingly executed content that is multi-layered visually and contextually.
Needless to say, I highly recommend The Illustionist. It is rated PG, primarily for smoking, drinking, and near-suicide. If you read Tati into more of the characters than just the Illusionist. The film is even more heart-breaking. Regardless, the film is easily one for the 10 & up crowd who doesn’t mind beautiful animation and engaging on a few of the deeper levels. And do read Ebert’s and Dargis’ reviews, they are wonderful and insightful.
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Produced by Sally Chomet, Bob Last
Screenplay by Henri Marquet, Sylvain Chomet
Story by Jacques Tati
Starring the voice talents of : Jean-Claude Donda (the Illusionist), Eilidh Rankin (Alice)
Music by Sylvain Chomet
Editing by Sylvain Chomet
Language: French, English, Gaelic
Running time: 80 minutes
Rated PG for for smoking, drinking, and near-suicide.