The Illusionist (2010)
written by: Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet, & Sylvain Chomet
produced by: Bob Last & Sally Chomet
directed by: Sylvain Chomet
rated PG (for thematic elements and smoking)
U.S. release date: December 25, 2010
French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet’s follows his delightful Oscar-nominated animated feature, “The Triplets of Belleville,” with a film that is both beautiful and bittersweet. What could be considered a modern silent film, is actually a devoted tribute to another French filmmaker, master thespian Jacques Tati (“Mon Oncle” and “Playtime”), adapting an unproduced screenplay he had written in 1956. Tati often played an endearing character similar to Charlie Chaplin that relied heavily on his odd physicality: tall skinny legs, round mid-section, long spindly hands, topped with a droopy face. Chomet and animator Laurent Kircher bring to life Tati’s distinguishable traits in the story’s protagonist, a last of his kind magician who forms an unlikely friendship with a young girl.
Set in 1959, the story follows an older Frenchman who travels throughout Europe as “The Illusionist”, getting work wherever he can. Through barren French audiences and competition from the up-and-coming London mod scene, we see that the ways of vaudeville performers are fast becoming a thing of the past. Then, a drunken Scottish onlooker at an outdoor party invites him to take a gig at a pub in a fisherman’s village. It’s not the best job but he and his wily white rabbit are enthusiastically received, especially by Alice, a shy teen busing tables who sees The Illusionist as a way to a new life. Having never seen such magical acts before, Alice believes them to be real and in an impulsive move tags along with him to Edinburgh.
The two hole up in a hotel housing a variety of vagabond characters (acrobats, a ventriloquist and a clown), themselves a remnant of a bygone era. In a relationship similar to “The Professional”, we watch as they take care of each other, her cooking rabbit stew and he developing a paternal side that he probably didn’t see coming. Soon though, Alice’s taste for womanly couture has the generous Illusionist taking whatever side job he can land.
Like Tati’s films, the characters here have very limited dialogue, yet Chomet delivers a fully realized and detailed world, complete with uniquely designed characters. In a French film with zero subtitles and few words, it’s a testament to the wonderful talent on display here that at no point do you feel lost or confused. Instead, there is an enchanting absorption that slowly takes place as the film progresses. The pace and quiet tone may not be for everyone, but the ever-present sense of humor and sweetness is undeniable. The beauty and humanity found in each frame make this a captivating and enduring film worthy of repeat visits.
At a time when animation is heavily reliant on computers and 3D, it’s a delight to effortlessly embrace the traditional approach. But like any successful film, what makes this excel is the screenplay, and Tati’s script says a lot without saying much. The not-so-subtle statement on the changing entertainment scene of the era along with the age gap between the two main characters, earns the film a bittersweet ending. Yet, it’s one in which you really can’t see any other way around such an outcome.
At least the somber tone in “The Illusionist” (or “L’Illusionniste”) is balanced with whimsical humor and physical comedy that provides genuine laughs. I appreciated how Chomet allowed the film to be carried on behavior alone. The responses and reactions of each character are natural, quirky, and funny, but overall intoxicating. It’s a touching sophomore effort that provides wonderful escapism and a proper farewell to an actor that many people know very little about, making this a perfect gateway to the career of Jacques Tati.