Friday, May 20, 2011

An Elegy for "The Illusionist"

There's been some controversy around "The Illusionist," which is an animated film based on an unproduced script written by the late, great French comedic icon, Jacques Tati. Some of his heirs have been screaming bloody murder about underhanded tactics used to wrest the rights of the script away from the family, and about how the filmmakers have warped and tarnished Tati's legacy by misrepresenting his intentions. Thus "The Illusionist," according to them, is irrevocably tainted and must be condemned. I have no idea whether there is any merit to the claims or not, but I can say that the film does not deserve to be maligned in this fashion. Despite the use of the script, a recognizable caricature of Tati in the lead role, and many Tati-esque visual gags, this is not Tati's film at all. Jacques Tati would never be so broadly melodramatic or earnestly sentimental. He would have included more comedy, more satire, more mockery. This is an homage to Tati, and thus the great director's influence only goes so far. At its heart, the film is the work of animator Sylvain Chomet, and it's brilliant.

The story is set in the late 1950s, and follows a small-time illusionist, Tatischeff, who travels from town to town playing various engagements. He is a master of his craft, but magic acts are going out of style, and he plays to smaller and smaller audiences. By luck, he's invited to a remote island community that is somewhat behind the times, and enjoys a brief period of renewed success. This is where he meets Alice, a young girl who believes that Tatischeff's magic is real, and follows him when he leaves the island. Tatischeff is fond of the girl, though they don't speak the same language, and have some difficulties communicating. He takes her with him to Edinburgh, Scotland, and buys her gifts of clothes and shoes he can't really afford, while pretending that he's better off than he really is. He still regularly performs at a tiny venue, but is also forced to take on a series of menial jobs to supplement his income. Alice keeps house for him in their tiny hotel room, and becomes friendly with other performers who are their neighbors - a clown, a trio acrobats, and a ventriloquist. Sadly, their happiness can't last.

"The Illusionist" runs a brief eighty minutes, and contains very little dialogue of any importance, like all of Chomet's and Tati's films. Instead, the story makes full use of the animated medium in its storytelling, from the nostalgically rendered European landscapes, to the human characters who are all deftly caricatured to some degree, to a few of Tati's famous visual puns. Animation of this caliber is rare, and it's those subtle things like the way Alice takes her first steps in high heels or the way Tatischeff spars with his troublesome rabbit, that set Chomet apart from his contemporaries. The style of the production is reminiscent of Disney features of the 1960s, like "101 Dalmatians," where the color palettes were more muted and the animators' drawings were xeroxed directly on to the animation cels, so the lines had a rougher, more immediate quality. But those films never had nearly the delicacy of mood or the depth of emotion that "The Illusionist" presents. The story has many gentle laughs, but its tone is frequently melancholy and the ending may leave you in tears.

It would be so easy to dismiss this film as slight, as a gimmicky throwback to an older style of animated film, or a piece of ephemera riding the coattails of Tati's masterpieces. Instead, I thought of "Make Way for Tomorrow," and "Umberto D," and all those other classic films about older, struggling men and women, who discover that the times have passed them by and rendered them irrelevant. And though I hate it when reviews use this line, I can't imagine a cartoon that is more emphatically not for children. There's no objectionable content, but I doubt anyone under the age of twelve would be able to handle the slow pace and moody themes. But oh, what an extra dimension of poignancy Chomet acheives by using traditional animation, itself a struggling artform in the age of CGI, to illustrate the tale of a master showman who must come to terms with the fact that he no longer has an audience.

In the end Tatischeff the Illusionist is not Monsieur Hulot, Jacques Tati's hero and alter ego. Tatischeff is older, wiser, and a great deal more vulnerable. Sometimes he seems more like an aging Chaplin than Tati. Moreover, while Hulot fought the encroachment of the modern world, poked fun at it, and illuminated its most ridiculous contradictions for us, Tatischeff must ultimately concede defeat, and does so gracefully. And perhaps that's why he won me over so entirely, and why I don't think I've ever wished harder for a happy ending for any fictional character, though I knew his story had to conclude the way it did. I may adore Jacques Tati, but "The Illusionist" didn't disappoint me for not being a Tati film, as advertised. Instead, I'm glad that we have Sylvain Chomet, and got to meet his version of the Illusionist.

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