The Illusionist *** ½
Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
Written By: Sylvain Chomet & Jacques Tati.
Starring: Jean-Claude Donda (The Illusionist), Eilidh Rankin (Alice).
It was only during the past year that I discovered the joy of the films of French director Jacques Tati. He was a director born a little too late – he had the soul of a silent cinema clown, perhaps a little more Chaplin than Keaton, but in the same league as both. His films, starring himself as the delightfully clueless Mr. Hulot, were masterworks of physical comedy, but also had a rather sad soul – the feeling that Mr. Hulot was being left behind. Somehow director Sylvain Chomet, who made the wonderful The Triplets of Belleville a few years ago, got his hands on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, and decided to adapt it for an animated film. This choice was inspired, and the only real way to do the film without Tati – there is no actor out there now who could do Tati better than he could. The Illusionist is a remarkable film in that it combines the work of these two great filmmakers into one film that is pretty much seamless.
The film is about an Illusionist, a magician if you prefer, in the late 1950s. The days of vaudeville, when he was a star, are long gone, but he still dutifully travels the circuit, playing to smaller and smaller crowds, who would rather see rock groups then his classic tricks. His travels take him to Scotland, where the drunken crowd seems to love him. He ends up travelling with a young woman named Alice – nothing romantic mind you, but she wants out of her small town life, and he wants a companion that won’t bite him like his uncooperative rabbit does. They are two lost souls who connect, if only briefly.
The film is full of little moments of humor and humanity. That damn rabbit, who is always getting into trouble by jumping out of the hat at the wrong time. A wonderful sequence where the illusionist takes a job as a mechanic on the night shift to try and make ends meet – but proves himself woefully inept at it. The looks exchanged between him and Alice – and later between Alice and a young man her own age, as she grows away from the illusionist. And the sad sequence where the illusionist has to perform his act in a store window, as a means to sell perfume.
The animation by Chomet is wonderful at every turn. The Illusionist really does look like Tati, and moves like him as well. You cannot mistake Tati’s movements for anyone else’s – just like you cannot mistake Chaplin’s or Keaton’s. Tati was a fully formed comic persona, and this movie does him proud. But it is also perhaps a little more sad that Hulot’s films – the Illusionist is not Mr. Hulot, who was clueless to his surroundings most of the time. The Illusionist here is all too aware of what is going on – but seems powerless to stop it.
The ending of the film is really where it all comes together. There is a sequence after the characters leave the story, of just buildings – old theaters as they shut down, and this is a quietly brilliant moment, a stretch of film that regretfully shows the passing of an era never to be heard from again. It is a brilliant moment.
If at the end of the day I do not feel that the film is quite as good as Tati’s work – or The Triplets of Belleville for that matter, it is perhaps because as a strange amalgam of the two director’s style, it lacks a little bit of the originality of both. Watching the film, I wondered at times what Tati would have done with the material – what touches he would have brought both in his direction and his acting. As well, I kept wondering what the film would have been like if Chomet hadn’t decided to make it slightly more in Tati’s style – the strange shapes, the surreal characters of his first feature are lacking through much of the film (although I love the impossibly skinny singer at the beginning of the film).
But that is a minor complaint to what I think is an excellent film. Chomet and Tati have collaborated in a strange way here – without one of them even knowing it (Tati died in 1982). The result is a film that neither would have made the same way without the other. And it is certainly one of the best animated films of the year.