CAPSULE: Just surviving is difficult enough for a lonely music hall stage performer in the 1950s. When a young teenage girl follows him to a new town he takes her under his wing to be her surrogate daughter. Sylvain Chomet animates a script by the great Jacques Tati. The story has a delicate bittersweet tone much too rarely present in contemporary films. THE ILLUSIONIST is really a film not to be missed. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Jacques Tati was a marvelous French comedian who made films in much the style of the great silent comedies. Sylvain Chomet made THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, a madcap feature-length animated film about a mother rescuing her son who was kidnapped from a cross-country bicycle race. On the basis of this film Chomet was offered a chance to animate an unproduced Jacques Tati script. Tati would have done the film live-action but in the 21st Century it probably is better suited to (its 2D) animation. Several references do homage to Tati, including a short piece of Tati's MON ONCLE.
In the late 1950s European music halls are dying. Tatischeff is a stage magician who plays music halls, but the audiences are more interested in rock and roll than they are in an aging stage museum. From one music hall to the next it was a mistake to have booked him. Finally he goes to a pub in the backlands of Scotland and surprisingly the pub loves his act. At least for one night he is a success and he shows off his stuff to a teenage girl who cleans his room, even buying her a pair of shoes to produce for her in a magic trick. She genuinely believes he does magic and is apparently as lonely as he is. She follows him to Edinburgh, and soon they have a father-daughter relationship.
The film follows the two over the course of a year or so in which the girl, Alice, matures into a young woman while life still has plenty of hard knocks for Tatischeff. The older man has to take short-time jobs to supplement his meager income, but he never quite finds his place.
A second relationship is important in the film. Tatischeff has the world's champion bad-tempered and trouble-making rabbit that the magician never seems to quite succeed in pulling from his hat. And even this relationship provides some poignancy. One question is a little hard to answer. THE ILLUSIONIST is an animated film so creating the legerdemain on camera is no effort at all. Tati would have had to perform these magic feats live-action in front of a camera. Were his skills up to the task? Could this be why the film was never made when Tati was alive?
The film is done in the style of a Jacques Tati comedy, a style reminiscent of Chaplin's early sound films. Though Tati's films usually have less plot than even Chaplin's. This film would have been an exception. There are occasional words spoken here and there, but nothing important is said and the film cannot be said to be in any language. It is not even clear that the old man and the girl have any language in common. THE ILLUSIONIST is essentially a silent film.
While the animation is similar to that of TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE this film is not so frenetic. Occasionally there is even an intricate image like a train on a bridge reflected in a pond below. The plotting is more restrained and realistic. It is reminiscent of films like LA STRADA with its light, sad mood. But THE ILLUSIONIST stands as a tribute to both Sylvain Chomet and to Jacques Tati. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0775489/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_illusionist-2009/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper