Based on a script by Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is a lyrical love story for sugar daddies and sweet dreamers. As well as residents of Dunedin.
Could It Be Magic? by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
The Illusionist is a project Sylvain Chomet has long had up his sleeve, ever since his Cannes premiere of Belleville Rendez-Vous. Over five years in production, his determination is undeniable, even relocating to Edinburgh and setting up a new animation company there. Audiences have waited a long time for a successor to his 2003 breakthrough hit, but it’s small wonder it’s taken so long when each frame is lovingly hand-drawn and redrawn. Blazing a nostalgic trail for 2D, Chomet’s animation is, as always, stunning. But with a soulful script inherited from Tati, it’s Les Triplettes de Belleville in a minor key.
Resurrecting a surviving Tati scenario donated by his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, The Illusionist is a touching father-daughter tale on the end of an age of innocence. And with virtually no dialogue, the film instead relies on an animated Tati stand-in to conjur up the magic. But with its 1950s retro-look and its past-their-prime vaudevillians, The Illusionist touches upon ground nostalgically familiar from Belleville Rendez-Vous or his amorous mime artists in Paris Je T’Aime. But instead of the black humour and elaborate narrative, The Illusionist is a simple story of a washed-up conjuror gasping his last to his final audience, an innocent, young dreamer.
Fed up of performing to empty music halls in the city of lights, the dour illusionist, the Great Tatischeff, heads west, to the sleepy Isle of Iona, where the inhabitants are just celebrating the arrival of electricity to the island. In this innocent backwater, his show goes down a storm, and Alice, entranced by his magic, stows away with him to the big smoke. Unable to find a lingua franca between his French and her Gaelic, the two converse in a conveniently Tatiesque visual language of conjuring flourishes and appreciative doe eyes, sharing a bedsit in the Little Joe Hotel.
The dog-eared hotel is filled with other little Joes – a dying breed of acrobats, ventriloquists and clowns, all unable to find a place in the world, their audiences defecting to the flashier antics of rock n’ roll in their droves. Billy Boy and The Britoons make a delightfully camp appearance as marauding rockstars, bequiffed Prometheuses stealing away the entertainers’ limelight. It’s the end of an era, but Tatischeff still has his adoring one-woman audience. And he keeps her enthralled with new tricks, magicking shoes and coats from nowhere. Even ruining himself, just to bring a little sparkle to her wide-eyes.
Under Tatischeff’s tutelage, Alice is transformed from scruffy wean to elegant Edinburgian swan. Nodding her way through a series of fairytale wardrobes, she dons her cautionary Red Shoes, or her blue and white Alice dress. She may be in a sartorial wonderland, but it’s Tatischeff who’s falling down the financial rabbit hole, forced to sell his conjuror’s top hat at pawnbrokers Brown & Blair’s to pay for it. Alice’s rags to riches story is strangely Disneyesque, a country Cinderella romancing the dishy student next door with the chiselled jaw. With the help of her fairy conjuror.
In fact, the godfather steals the show, and The Illusionist is at its best humiliating the end-of-the-pier Tatischeff, mournfully touting bargains in a pink tuxedo in Jenners’ shop window, or casting loaded paintbrushes high for acrobats to daub poster bills. The film sparkles with his Tatiesque turns, tottering on lumpen legs like a roly poly, a Monsieur Hulot with a higher centre of gravity. And it’s a loving homage to Tati, grand master of physical comedy, with scene-stealing sketches of a drunken Tatischeff careening upstairs or fretting for his grumpy rabbit whose goose may or may not have been cooked. And with a guest appearance of Mon Oncle in a fleapit cinema, it’s to Tati with love.
With such subtle physical comedy at the heart and art of his animation, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is all about performance. But it’s a soothing feint which hides a subtle sleight of hand. Just as Alice opens her eyes to the big wide world, the conjuror is losing the faith, his illusions of keeping the magic alive falling from his eyes. There’s a fatigued cynicism to the way he shatters Alice’s illusions, giving her a coin she’s unable to spend to teach her the value of money. And when he finally kills the dream of magic with a sordidly real note, he dispels his one-woman audience with a fell swoop, consigning himself to lonely retirement. His dreams well and truly over, on the train away from Edinburgh, when he has the chance to beguile another blue-and-white clad dreamer, he shies away, deciding just to give the dropped pencil back.
Like magic, hand-drawn animation is a dying art. And Chomet must see reflections of himself in Tatischeff; the deft illusionist creating great poetry in his anachronistic conjurings. Illusions are everywhere, and Chomet, with his quaint leap forward is just as much the illusionist as Alice and the conjuror, with their magical delusions and yearnings for a bygone age. A romantic love letter to Edinburgh, The Illusionist has a very European gloss, with one or two horse guards or bagpipe players too many for my liking. But it’s an animated wonderland with a sting, and the illusionist’s white rabbit is a cantankerous realist, ready to treat any deluded dreamer to a cautionary bite on the thumb.
The Illusionist is released in the UK on 20th August 2010.