The Illusionist (2010)
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Written by Jacques Tati and adapted by Sylvain Chomet
Belgian, 80 mins. PG
* * * * *
One of the best films of the year is Belgian, animated, and has no discernible dialogue, but trust me, The Illusionist is pure magic. It’s also touching, poignant, heart wrenching and thought provoking.
Director Sylvain Chomet also gave us the delightful Triplets of Bellevilles (2003). The story line of The Illusionist is thinner, but every bit as engaging. Chomet adapted a script written by legendary French film director and actor Jacques Tati, one given to him by Tati’s daughter Sophie back in 2000. The titular character is a cartoon version of Tati himself, right down to world-weary eye bags. Tati made six feature films between 1947 and his death in 1982. Most of them featured Tati as Monsieur Hulot, a comedic character as recognizable in France as Chaplin’s Tramp. The setup for Hulot comedies was often that of a man slightly out of time, one intrigued by modernity and its change, but constitutionally incapable of mastering new ideas and new technology. Tati was also one of the last of the great pantomime stars; most of his films had little or no dialogue.
This background will help you enjoy the intrinsically enjoyable The Illusionist even more, as will keeping Chaplin in mind. Once again we see a likable man out of synch with the calendar. In this case, our time period is the early 1960s and the illusionist is a skilled craftsman of a dying art form: vaudeville. He performs sleight of hand and acts of manual dexterity in seedy theaters before sparse audiences. Like his fellow troupers he is aging, tired, and desperate. He simply knows no other life, though he can see that his future is behind him every time he takes the stage after the rock band that empties out the auditorium before he does his first trick. In an effort to milk the theater for as many paychecks as he can, the illusionist travels to a play that modernity hasn’t quite penetrated: Scotland’s remote Hebridean islands. But when a publican screws in the first light bulb and it’s quickly followed by a juke box, the handwriting is on the wall. Only a young Scottish housemaid, Alice, still finds magic in the illusionist’s act, and she stows herself away amidst his gear when he heads to Edinburgh to seek whatever work he can.
This is not a love story. Alice is essentially a gamin to the illusionist’s tramp. It’s a Chaplinesque plot line of two poor and lonely people sharing what they don’t have. Except that Alice hits the big city and begins to dream of clothes, shoes, and respectability and our hero does what he can for as long as he can to make those dreams come true. These characters are cartoons, but there is more honest emotion in their travails and dilemmas than in most of the overwrought live-actor films that pass as “dramas” these days. The film is also absolutely gorgeous to watch. If you’ve ever been to Edinburgh you’ll marvel over how well Chomet renders it. There is no actual dialogue--just some occasional nonsense gibberish that occasionally hints at French or Scots Gaelic--but you don’t need words. Alice and the illusionist speak different languages, but Chomet allows them to exude universal emotions and plots the film in a way that allows you to fill in what was said. When more is needed, Chomet uses simple but deft illustration to draw out sentiment in graphic form.
There’s also a big question embedded in all of this and it’s the eternal one: how does one cope with the liminal period of one’s life when the world no longer wants what you once offered, but you’re not yet in the grave? What do you do when time passes you by? And here we see Chomet at his cleverest. He gives us a film within a film within a film within a film. It is mostly hand drawn at a time in which computer-aided design is the industry standard. He shows us a vaudeville star being put out to pasture by movies and has his character enter a theater in which a Jacques Tati film is playing. But, of course, we also know that Tati is passé, as is the skiffle-like early Beatles band that’s thrilling the kids. To throw in a final body punch, Chomet uses old-technology 2-D cartooning, but animates sequences with 3-D digital tricks.
By all means see this film. As you see the rabbit emerging from the hat what you’ll feel is your heart being pulled from your chest.