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A scene from Sylvain Chomet's animated feature "The Illusionist" (Handout)
A scene from Sylvain Chomet's animated feature "The Illusionist" (Handout)

Warren Clements: On Demand

Travel, farce and a dose of magic Add to ...

This is a week for travelling to find satisfying work. In The Illusionist (2010), French director Sylvain Chomet's second animated feature after The Triplets of Belleville, a Parisian magician seeking attentive audiences tries his luck in Britain. In The Concert (2009), Romanian-born writer-director Radu Mihaileanu pits a motley crew of Russian musicians against an arts bureaucracy in Moscow that has shunted them aside. They try their luck in Paris.

For Tatischeff, the performer in The Illusionist, life in 1959 is not kind. His magic act is impressive, even with a grumpy rabbit continually trying to escape, but audiences think magic is boring. In London, where he hopes to whet fresh appetites, the crowd's screams are for a scraggly rock 'n' roll band whose encores leave him waiting, frustrated, for his moment on stage. When it comes, the crowd has gone.

Fate lands him a gig in Scotland, but even there the arrival of electricity on an isolated island undercuts him. He retreats to Edinburgh, along with a hotel maid who has mistaken his act for real magic. He must find new work on one hand while trying not to disillusion her on the other. He is, after all, an illusionist.

This bittersweet, elegiac tale was written decades ago by the great French actor-director Jacques Tati, who promptly put the script in a drawer. He had made a career with his upbeat character M. Hulot, and seems to have feared the commercial consequences of such a downbeat subject, even one brightened by the bits of comic business for which Tati was known. Chomet discovered the existence of Tati's script when he asked Tati's daughter for permission to use a Tati clip in The Triplets of Belleville. (Tati had died in 1982.)

Chomet switched the setting from Prague to Edinburgh, where he now has his studio. He created a film one could easily imagine Tati making, albeit with hand-drawn characters beautifully set against computerized backgrounds. He gave the illusionist the name Tatischeff, Tati's real name, and made the tall, gangly fellow a dead ringer for Tati. The movie weaves a wonderful, delicate spell, even if fate does its best to break it.

The plot of The Concert is implausible in so many ways that it's best just to say that you don't need to buy into the details to enjoy the ride. It is grounded in a serious moment, when the policies of Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s destroy the career of the conductor of Moscow's Bolshoi Orchestra because he dares retain the services of Jewish musicians.

Thirty years later, as the film begins, the conductor, Andrei (Alexei Guskov), is working as a cleaner. He serendipitously intercepts a fax from Paris's Châtelet Theatre inviting the Bolshoi Orchestra to perform in that city. He and the other former musicians seek artistic revenge.

Mihaileanu throws every imaginable stereotype into the mix as Andrei and his mates use their wiles to pass themselves off as the new orchestra. It helps that the French theatre, for its own reasons, is desperate to accommodate the guests' demands. And it helps that Mihaileanu directs the talented cast to play the story largely as farce, though not at the expense of an emotional finale.

One difference between the two movies is that The Illusionist has scarcely any dialogue, while everyone talks over everybody else in The Concert, at first in Russian and later in French. (The subtitles are good.)

In the end, both are about the attempt to recapture an audience that appreciates true artistic skill. Sometimes, to quote Chief Dan George in Little Big Man, the magic doesn't work.

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