In 1959 London, magician Jacques Tatischeff is still performing his pre-war rabbit-out-of-the-hat routine, but after three encores by rock band Billy Boy and the Britoons, his audience has almost completely fled. Forced to seek out less urban locales, Jacques ends up performing in a pub in a remote Scottish fishing village where he captures the imagination of teenage charwoman Alice. He's surprised to find her stowing away for his next engagement, where he hopes to take Edinburgh by storm as "The Illusionist."
It's been seven long years since French writer/animator Sylvain Chomet broke onto the scene with the enchanting and utterly original "The Triplets of Belleville." As his followup, he's taken an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, reportedly written for his estranged daughter, to pay more explicit homage to its author. While "The Illusionist" isn't the discovery that "Belleville" was, it is a magical tale, gorgeously brought to life and a true collaboration between two artists. It does has its small faults, but its cumulative effect is of the sweetest kind of melancholy.
Just like "Tripets," Chomet begins with a black and white prologue set in Paris where we see Tatischeff (modeled on Tati and using his real name) collide between curtains with a highly stylized chanteuse (cigarette holder, sharp shoulder blades) as he hunts down his runaway bunny. After his London flop, he packs up his poster from the theater's glassed in case and heads to the train. A small boat takes him to his destination, piloted by a kilted Scotsman whom Chomet tickles with animated wind to answer the age old question.
The feeling he evokes in the small, cramped pub is like something out of "I Know Where I'm Going" or "Local Hero," a sense of warmth among locals with quirky habits (a bald light bulb is treated like a grand theatrical accoutrement). Alice keeps peeking in on the performer, who tips her by pulling coins out of her ears. When he gifts her with red shoes to replace her shabby boots, a whole new world presents itself to her.
As if Edinburgh weren't enchantment enough (the animator's pallet gets the city's mood just right), Alice is floored by the chic shops and the chic women who patronize them. Jacques is alarmed to note that she is now enamored of a pair of heels. He's not exactly flush and Alice is paying her way by cooking in the room he's booked at Little Joe Hotel. Alice makes friends with the other outmoded performers who stay there - a tumbling group, an alcoholic ventriloquist and a suicidal clown.
The meat of "The Illusionist" takes place here as the older man's downward spiral presents an unlikely liftoff for a better life for Alice. The film is basically silent - Chomet voices the Scots with an amusingly incoherent rumble and the international bent of the Edinburgh hotel guests is defined by sound effects rather than words, although a few creep in. Tati is most obviously evoked when Jacques enters a theater playing "Mon Oncle," then runs out from the opposite angle Tati is exiting the movie screen. Jacques and his fellow performers try new ways of making ends meet (how 2000's!) for some slapstick comedy, but a scene where he works an overnight shift in a garage is a bit muddled and overextended. Alice begins a new relationship with a handsome student she spies across an alley (her expectation that he will buy her something she fancies in a department store, a less than sentimental commentary on the father and daughter relationship between her and Jacques. The rabbit presents a few scares ('lapin' being one of the few discernible words used).
"The Illusionist," which is also perfectly scored by Chomet, may have its dips but its ending soars with a triplet of scenes. Jacques's ironic note that 'Magicians do not exist' is followed by a shot of the empty hotel room where a book's pages ruffling in the breeze paint a shadow play on the wall. Simply magical.
The great French comedic genius Jacques Tati is best known for his marvelous, near silent Monsieur Hulot films that entertained millions of fans for decades, Animation master Sylvain Chomet, who created one of the greatest animes of the last decade (“Triplets of Bellville”), dusted off Tati’s first, unpublished screenplay and turned it into “The Illusionist.”
The first thing I thought of as I watched “The Illusionist” was how much writer-director Chomet must love Jacques Tati, (I can see why, being a huge fan of his works, too.) The result is an animation that Tati himself could have made. The title character, aging magician Tatischeff (Tati’s real name), is a thing of the past. The audiences for his magic act have dwindled over the years and, now, he plays to a house of two - Rock and Roll has forced its way onto the stage where vaudeville once ruled. Poor Tatischeff is finally fired and, unsuccessfully, he looks for a new place to perform his feats of prestidigitation. His luck changes when he performs at a garden party and a very drunk Scotsman takes a liking to the illusionist, offering him a gig in the remote highlands of Scotland.
Tatischeff (who shares a remarkable resemblance with his creator, Jacques) makes the long journey and is charmed by the beautiful scenery and the acceptance by the locals of his magical skills. Where, in London, his art fell out of favor, in Scotland it is a breath of fresh air and the success of the old days has returned. One of his new fans, a young woman named Alice, attaches herself to the magician and they journey, together, throughout Scotland. The adventure will change each of their lives forever.
“Brilliant! Beautiful! A Masterpiece!” could all be movie blurbs used to praise the nearly silent “The Illusionist.” Usually, though, those blurbs on movie posters are from people paid money to do it. Most times the films would not be considered beautiful, brilliant or a masterpiece. However, I would gladly forgo any compensation and use all of those words, and other praises, to define the film.
Sylvain Chomet makes a Jacques Tati movie, with all the wit, charm and artistry the man displayed so well in his films, as well as his minimalist use of dialog. This is more than homage, though, as the director takes the source material and makes it his own. The subtle, elegant use of animation, with lovely muted colors, may not appeal to viewers used to the flood of brightly colored 3D CGI animations that have descended upon us these past few ears. This is not a kid’s cartoon and the terrific 2D drawing coupled with the wonderful, warm and touching adapted story is definitely aimed at film buffs everywhere. But, everyone else should see it, too. I give it an A.
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