Mark Reviews Movies

THE ILLUSIONIST (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Cast: The voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

Running Time: 1:20

Release Date: 12/25/10 (limited); 1/14/11 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 13, 2011

Jacques Tati makes an unexpected return in Sylvain Chomet's marvelous and affectionate animated adaptation of an unfilmed script from the master comedian. The Illusionist captures the transcendent spirit of Tati in form and theme.

The original script, according to reports, was intended to be a joint project between Tati and his daughter Sophie, herself a filmmaker (also editor of her father's final two features). It covers familiar territory for his bemused satire—a suspicion of technology (especially in the way it relates to social interaction) and materialism—and also encompasses an affection for humanity, particularly those who are left behind by a changing society.

Tati, famously, faced personal financial failure after his ambitious 1967 film Play Time flopped, and that experience seems to inform every bit of his now animated character in The Illusionist, a down-on-his-luck stage magician named—after Tati's given name—Tatischeff (voice of Jean-Claude Donda) for an audience that simply is not there anymore—distracted instead by popular music acts and television of 1959.

His most rousing professional success in the film is at a pub in a small, rural Scottish town, where the patrons marvel at the installation of a light bulb. His act capitalizes on that awe, incorporating a string of Christmas lights that illuminate without any visible power source except his own body. The crowd cheers and applauds, and he gives a moment's pause to take it in as he walks toward his accommodations upstairs. Once he has walked away, the owner brings out a new jukebox, and they dance. As quickly as Tatischeff came into their lives and entertained them, he is as distant a memory as some childhood amusement to them.

The magician does not begrudge the people their changing tastes in arts and entertainment; he merely moves past them in the same way the world passes him by—literally, in one instant, when he doesn't even give a passing glance toward a shop window full of televisions. The jokes are typical of Tati, ignoring dialogue (replacing it with music and sometimes incoherent babbling) and instead filling the frame in long shots of activity, creating an environment full of colorful background characters, and watching as his screen persona observes the hustle and bustle. Chomet fills every shot with life, whether it is those players in the backdrop, the details of the locales, or Tatischeff's rigid core with precise movements from his lanky appendages.

Backstage after one show, he searches for his partner, a chubby rabbit that likes to bite, as the band assembles and an emaciated female singer prepares for her moment in the spotlight. At another show in London, he waits patiently for a band with long hair to finish their set, preparing the rabbit in his hat, the scarf up his sleeve, and a few pre-lit cigarettes. Then there's encore after encore—Big Ben chimes, the palace guard changes—until finally he can perform to a grandmother and child, who already knows how the tricks work.

It is a thankless job, so it is no wonder he takes a liking to Alice (voice of Eilidh Rankin), who also has an unappreciated job cleaning up at the Scottish pub. After he pulls a huge, new bar of soap seemingly out of thin air, she believes his magic act is real. He gives her a tip, and she believes she must now do something for him. She does not understand kindness, though she clearly longs for it. Why else would a young woman take the sleight of hand trickery of an illusionist as legitimate magic?

Their bond is one of deep gentleness and compassion, although it seems, until the film's dedication before the credits run when we can finally confirm the void she has filled for him, one-sided on his part. After he notices her boots are falling apart, he buys her new shoes. She tags along uninvited as he goes to Edinburgh for another show. The shop windows are a portal to another world for Alice, full of silken glamour and high heels. He cannot help himself to buy her these things and pretend he conjures them for her out of nothing—to not accept his role as a man of magic is to shatter her view of the potential goodness of the world.

In Edinburgh, they stay at a rundown hotel, populated with other struggling artists. There is a ventriloquist, whose dummy does most of the talking. There are acrobats, whose every step is a performance. There is the saddest clown one will ever see, who sets his entire life to circus music playing from a phonograph. They create a community—a family, if you will. There is instant acceptance, such as when the acrobats shake the hand of and bow to Tatischeff when they first meet him, and there is camaraderie, such as when Alice makes stew for them all (After a breeze flips the pages of the cookbook, Tatischeff worries it is rabbit stew, feigning interest in the meal while frantically scanning for his partner).

As Alice's life takes a turn for better, Tatischeff must begin providing for both Alice and, secondarily, himself. It is a bitter pill, this unnecessary responsibility, and while it offers a hilarious bit involving the illusionist's side job as a mechanic (He has no clue how any of the equipment works, accidentally washing a man's car with oil and finally letting nature do the rest when a storm hits), there's resentment, too.

Chomet expertly handles the shift in their relationship and, indeed, the fortunes of all these artists struggling just to survive. The ventriloquist's dummy appears in the window of a second-hand shop—the price tag crossed off too many times for anyone to ever consider purchasing it—and our last view of its former owner is of him drunk and still talking through his hand. The acrobats have taken to painting billboard advertising, swinging to-and-fro with paint brushes. Tatischeff becomes a piece of advertising, too, in a shop window. Ashamed of her seeing him, Tatischeff ducks into a screening of Tati's magnificent Mon Oncle, reminding us how keenly the animators have recreated his gait, posture, and movements in this animated avatar.

As Tatischeff moves on toward an unknown future with tempered awareness of reality, Alice beats against the crowd to a life now full of equal parts disillusionment promise, and lights go down on the world of what is likely Tati's final creation, The Illusionist becomes a devastating lament for lost dreams, lit a single, fluttering, hopeful light. Chomet has offered Monsieur Tati as fond a farewell as anyone can hope to give or receive.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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