EIFF 2010 Film Review: The Illusionist

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Neeps and Tati

(The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet, UK/France, 2010, 83mins)

[Note: This review reveals the film’s ending]

It’s been suggested that with the advent of fully immersive three-dimensional imagery – the kind developed by James Cameron for Avatar, employing advanced motion capture technology to graft an animated character onto a life action performance, it may be possible to effectively revive dead actors. Biologically, though they remain in death, their likeness could once again bestride a cinema screen near you. However, before hundreds of millions of dollars are spent, it may be prudent for technologists to study Sylvain’s Chomet’s follow-up to Belleville Rendezvous. It revives both the spirit, unfilmed screenplay and likeness of the late Jacques Tati with such conviction and thematic exactitude, that it’s possible to believe he lives again, and all on a budget that wouldn’t get Mr Cameron through pre-production.

There’s a judicious portion of biography kneaded into Tati’s adapted screenplay. Tati/Tatischeff is the titular rabbit puller working Parisian music halls to rows of empty seats. The vaudeville acts of old are being replaced by bouffant haired guitar pluckers who’ll eventually evolve into The Beatles. In fact, “The Britoons”, though audibly the part, provide the only anachronistic joke in The Illusionist – beloved by teenage girls but revealed as a troupe of homosexuals off stage. Fine, but did they have to be such raging, limp wristed queens?

The conjurer, hoping to fare better across the water, travels first to London and eventually to the Highlands, where he encounters Alice, a teenage girl entranced by his act and its fantastical mystique. She leaves her village with him, relocating to Edinburgh to witness magic’s dying days.

There’s a mesmerising, old world charm to this 2D animation. Hand drawn to the eye, albeit with digital accoutrements, its depictions of the Scottish capital are as evocative a portrait as any live action forebear, with the added romanticism of a fine line and watercolour aesthetic. Watching it made me regress into childhood. The characters seemed to step out of a Herge book; the backgrounds sketched with the pencil of Quentin Blake. Everywhere Tatischeff goes, from the theatres of London’s West End to the Highlands, your eyes are suitably wooed – enjoying the artistry and artifice. The Fifties setting is gentle nostalgia – the sense of a world with recognisable landmarks, accurately recreated, which has nevertheless slipped away. It’s impossible to watch it without imbibing the detail, the swaying heather, the steam train’s reflection in the water as it puffs across the bridge overhead, the gentle satirical swipes; battered everything with no salad available on the price board of an Edinburgh Fish and Chip shop and Brown and Blair’s pawnbrokers, just two examples. That the two former Labour leaders should be recast as harbingers of new money for old rope – peddlers of low rent capitalism, is an inspired touch.

It is, appropriately for a Tati tribute, a glorious revival of the neglected art of near silent comedy. Essentially dialogue free, bar brief murmurs of speech – verbalised intertitles – Chomet thumbs the Tati playbook, employing visual jokes, like the pint sized hotelier who uses just the lower half of a stable door, as well as misunderstanding and the minutiae of human behaviour, to splendiferous effect. In short, in addition to being the film Tati might have made, and indeed planned to make, it is a worthy companion piece to the Frenchman’s oeuvre and a high watermark for Chomet’s. Each character, assigned their own lead animator, in lieu of the script’s dependence on nuance and gesture, is full and memorable. I found myself imagining their back stories; the suicidal clown with the ostrich neck and suitably small noose who planned to kill himself to a vinyl record of circus tunes, the ventriloquist who eats alone with his dummy, the drunken Scotsman with a permanent grin soaked into his face – all vivid, all mute.

This is character lead comedy that builds inventive set pieces around Tati’s pet critiques of conspicuous consumption and the bleed from American consumerism; a sequence in which Tatischeff wrestles with a toothy American’s Cadillac and a soap billboard painted using cash hungry trapeze artists, notable standouts.

Delightful as these sequences are, the film is built on the relationship between the old school performer and his idolising companion – with Tatischeff’s attempts at maintaining her illusions of him driving the story. Just whom Alice might represent has been the subject of mild controversy. The family of Tati’s illegitimate daughter, Helga Schiel, whom Tati refused to acknowledge, insist that the original screenplay is a lament for a lost relationship; an expression of guilt. Tati’s legitimate, now late daughter Sophie thought otherwise. EIFF artistic director Hannah McGill doesn’t mention Helga at all in her festival note, sparing the family’s blushes, but the desperately touching denouement, with Tatischeff leaving Alice behind with a parting note that reads “there’s no such thing as magic”, has the imprint of a regret. The relationship between the two, occasionally awkward, never less than poignant, has an ever-present transitory dimension. While Tatischeff is reduced to performing in the window of Jenners Department Store, Alice has attracted a local stud. The final moments, with Alice and her new beau leaving together, and the lights going out across the city is desperately sad; the end of an era but an unlikely final curtain for an audience’s love affair with this touching and often very funny tale.

One Response

  1. I’m very fond of Jacques Tati; even as someone who finds most slapstick embarrassing to watch, I find his films uniquely charming. I’ll have to see this at some point, and be prepared to weep unashamedly at the ending.