Tatischeff is a journeyman magician in the last days of the great dance halls. The 1950s are coming to a close, and his audience is slowly being swallowed up by television and rock and roll. Soldiering on at a gig at a tiny inn in Scotland, the magician wins the fascination of Alice, a young girl who seems to believe that all of his magic is real. Alice follows him to Edinburgh, where he’s forced to take a series of odd jobs to supplement his performance income and to keep up the illusion of his magic with the girl. What will happen when reality encroaches on their fantasy world, and the magic (and the money) runs out?
If one more person asks me if this is the same as that Edward Norton movie…
The Illusionist is based on an unproduced script by the great French actor/comedian Jacques Tati. There has been some controversy as to the script’s original intent (it’s either a statement of guilt for not having spent enough time with his daughter Sophie or an admission of shame for abandoning his illegitimate daughter Helga) and the changes that director/adaptor Sylvain Chomet has made to it, but as far as I can see it doesn’t effect the actual movie itself in any way, other than in the dedication at the end which, if anything, will just give you one more thing to think about afterwards.
In life, Jacques Tati (born Jacques Tatischeff) was always being confused with his on-screen personas (particularly his most iconic character, Mr. Hulot), and Chomet pays tribute to this by making the The Illusionist as “just another” Tati movie, basing not only the lead character’s name and likeness on the actor but also making him wear his trademark grey raincoat for much of the movie. As well, the physical comedy – the car washing scene, the confusion with the soup, any of the magic show scenes – is classic Tati.
At the same time, however, The Illusionist is unmistakably Chomet’s film. The beautiful ink-washed artwork and the caricature-like look of many of the characters will be instantly identifiable to anyone who was seen The Triplets of Belleville. In another callback to Belleville, the dialogue is not spoken in English…or any language, either. While you can occasionally make out individual words in English or French (and in this movie, Gaelic), the “language” used is a kind of purer expression based on grunts, gestures, and facial expressions (think Mr. Bean, a character which incidentally was also much influenced by Mr. Hulot). Also like Belleville, there is a strong subplot involving finding family in a group of oddball performers, though in a more indirect way here, and it must be said, way sadder.
There is, in fact, an air of sadness pervading the entire film, even in its most comedic moments. Despite the look and sound of the movie, one would certainly never mistake this film for the madcap romp that was Belleville. The end, in fact, is a downright downer.
The relationship between the magician and girl is cute, but also tempered with a sad realism, as shown in Alice’s childishness and occasional greed, as well as in the series of increasingly funny-but-pathetic odd jobs that the magician must take, all leading to the movie’s final moments which are heavy with loss, regret, and heartbreak.
While I admired much of how the movie looked and what it had to say, I can’t help but feel that, if anything, the movie suffers from a lack of imagination. More than once I wished I could see life through Alice’s eyes, and how beautiful this city, this world, these people would look to someone who truly believed in magic. Instead, we stick mostly with a sad, dour reality that somewhat misses the point of the beautiful artwork and animation.
It seems unfair to judge a movie based on what it’s not rather than what it is, but in comparison to the prior, wildly imaginative work of Chomet and the joyous and innovative precedent set by Tati (even at his darkest and most satirical), I can’t help but feel that The Illusionist is something of a missed opportunity.