Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to his razzle-dazzle exercise in animation, The Triplets of Belleville (2003), is a more stately, melancholic affair. The source is an unproduced script by the French filmmaker and comic Jacques Tati, which Chomet has made into a posthumous homage to the artist.
The Illusionist then, is itself something of a conjuring act, resurrecting an old-fashioned watercolour-and-pencil style of animation (circa 101 Dalmatians), as well as reviving the distinctive cerebral tickle of Tati's comedy.
Like Chaplin, Tati (born Jacques Tatischeff) was both a comedian and innovative filmmaker responsible for a series of inspired, language-light minimalist comedies in the fifties and the sixties, featuring the lugubrious Monsieur Hulot ( Mr. Hulot's Holiday, Mon Oncle, Play Time).
Chomet has even rendered an animated version of Tati as the star of the film, a stork-like middle-aged man in too-short pants and overcoat, with a mournful, resigned gaze. Before he was a filmmaker, Tati worked as a stage mime, and the film is also a tribute to the last remnants of music hall and vaudeville in the late fifties.
The story begins with the magician, Monsieur Tatischeff (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda), who is struggling to make a living pulling scarves and his ill-tempered rabbit out of hats in front of bored audiences. In desperation, he embarks on a tour to England in which he follows a raucous pre-Beatles band, the Britones, and everyone except a boy and his mother depart the moment the band finishes its encore.
Things pick up, marginally, when the magician travels for a gig at a Scottish island pub filled with enthusiastic drunken men in kilts, where he does his act. In the crowd is one genuinely astonished fan, a teenaged maid named Alice (voiced by Eilidh Rankin) who believes he can do real magic.
Though separated by language and age, the two lonely souls find a connection. In a gesture of kindness, the magician buys her a pair of new red shoes. She follows him to Edinburgh, where she moves into his boarding house and sleeps in the bedroom, while he folds his long body to fit on the sofa. In the same house are other performers working at the nearby Royal Theatre: a team of leaping acrobats who enter every room doing cartwheels and yelling, "Hey!", a drunken ventriloquist and his lookalike puppet, and a suicidal clown.
Meanwhile, walking the streets of Edinburgh, Alice gazes in rapture at the clothes in store windows, and soon – presto! – they are provided for her. To keep the girl happy, the magician secretly takes extra jobs working nights in a garage, or demonstrating brassieres in a shop window. As he undergoes these indignities, she shows herself to be increasingly resourceful in caring for him and the other tenants of the boarding house.
As Alice transforms from a girl to a fashionable young woman, the magician's undefined paternal/romantic relationship becomes more awkward. To my taste, at least, The Illusionist stretches this delicate business out to the point of preciousness. With very little dialogue (mostly garbled syllables, and the occasional word in English or French) and leisurely, episodic structure, the movie feels longer than its 82-minute running time.
Though something less than a masterpiece, The Illusionist is a rare animated film of fleeting charms rather than loud noises, aimed more at wistful adults than thrill-hungry kids. The gentle delights range from the depiction of late fifties' Edinburgh with the milky light and gothic-influenced architecture, to the clever evocation of Tati's bumbling, comic rhythms. With luck, it may even lead those wistful adults back to Tati's own films, which are boisterous with life.
- Directed by Sylvain Chomet
- Written by Sylvain Chomet, from a script by Jacques Tati
- Starring Jean-Claude Donda and Eilidh Rankin
- Classification: G