by George Sax
Conjuring an Old Magician
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is a unique homage to a remarkable film artist, Jacques Tati, the great French creator of a small, singular body of work over a quarter century, beginning with Jour de fête in 1949. Tati’s cinema operated in a wittily fabricated world of eccentric, seemingly whimsical, but carefully staged gags and off-kilter behaviors. His films relied on intricately constructed physical humor, allied with a soft-peddled but discernible spoof of mid-20th-century urban life. In Jour de fête, his oblique wit is directed at management science dogmas of efficiency; in his biggest hit, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, at strenuous middle-class efforts at vacation enjoyment.
Tati’s standard protagonists—mild, middle-aged, and ungainly—ambulate uncertainly through their settings, trying amiably to fit in but remaining the odd men out. The films aren’t silent by any means, but save for bursts of often incomprehensible vocabulary, they’re free of dialogue. Tati uses sound to underlie his episodically contained jokes—the noise made by a ping-pong game in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, for example.
Chomet has uncannily evoked Tati’s art in The Illusionist, without copying it. This inspiration is most concretely represented in the appearance and behavior of the title character, rendered as an animated depiction of Tati himself, down to dress and movement.
The picture owes its existence to an unproduced screenplay by Tati (who died in 1982) that Chomet obtained and reworked. The resulting film is different than any Tati made. Although there are some comedic touches, most persistently an uncooperative magician’s rabbit who won’t exit his hat, this isn’t really a comic work. It has a muted, fatalistic sadness about it, in spite of Chomet’s light, often delicate touch. It’s also unlike Chomet’s one previous film, the sharply, even vulgarly rambunctious animated feature The Triplets of Belleville.
The illusionist Tatischeff (Tati’s original surname) is found at the movie’s beginning plying his magic act in old theaters in the late 1950s, appearing before sparse and unappreciative audiences. He’s playing out the thread of a small-time career in the dying music hall business, one in which Tati had worked before his film stardom. The Illusionist presents this social setting and change in an exaggeratedly styled fashion. When he eventually winds up playing a pub in a remote Scottish village, he inadvertently entrances Alice, an adolescent char girl, with his tricks and gracious manner. She follows him to the ferry when he leaves. Without much ado (there are no real conversations in the film), they wind up together in a residential hotel in Edinburgh, and he tries to assume a paternal role to his young but not childish charge. He even attempts jobs outside his show business work to get money for presents for her.
The magician’s relationship with Alice is kept morally aboveboard, and Chomet refrains from communicating any strong sense of emotional connection. Except toward the picture’s very end, there is almost no recourse to the situation’s implicit pathos, even as Chomet portrays settings and characters who are society’s rejects. It seems quite possible that Tati’s treatment was sketchy and that he might have embroidered it with his signature humor, had he chosen to turn it into a film. Chomet generally avoids gags and has satisfied himself with a deft, light, but usually well observed approach. (As Roger Ebert has noted, Edinburgh must only very rarely have looked so good, if also bleak at the same time.) Chomet is given to little visual digressions, some humorous, others nastier—like a fleeting glimpse of a boy’s mugging and kicking a man.
Indeed, The Illusionist is a dynamic, visually enthralling work of art. It’s been executed in restrained but rich style that can strike a viewer as a blend of Daumier and Disney, particularly that studio’s old One Hundred and One Dalmatians, although the animation here is far more complex and subtle. At one point, Chomet has his Tati-like illusionist confronted by an actual brief clip from one of Tati’s films, a kind of in-joke. Chomet’s style and approach diverge from Tati’s without ever losing the sense that Tati’s spirit hovers over this strange, beautiful little film.
Watch the trailer for The Illusionist
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