Sight unseen, there may be some misunderstandings about The Illusionist. This animated Oscar nominee should not be confused with the Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti 2006 period piece of the same name, although belief in magic is among both films’ essential thematic concerns. Nor is it wholly accurate to call this a new offering from the late French auteur Jacques Tati, although it does derive from an original screenplay he wrote in 1956.
This Illusionist was adapted and directed by animator Sylvain Chomet, who also made The Triplets of Belleville—a decidedly more manic picture, but also a reasonable forecast of the audacity required to take up a dead old master’s unfilmed project. Presumably, there will be Tati purists who consider this some kind of grave-robbing violation, but Chomet seems as right for the challenge as any filmmaker. The Illusionist has the hallmarks: the nearly wordless austerity, the wistful piquancy, the affectionate and meticulous attention to the details of a character-enveloping landscape.
And it has the advantage of stylistic synchronicity—assuming there’s still an audience, however small, that understands both the rabbit-from-hat magic act and the hand-drawn animation technique as dying arts deserving eulogy.
Our eponymous, highly Tati-like protagonist is a traveling magician of late middle age who, in spite of his dignity, seems increasingly unfit for service to the alienating late-1950s world. After his act flops in Paris and then in London, he makes for the Scottish highlands, where he finally finds an appreciative pub crowd and wins over a starstruck teenage chambermaid. Chivalrously, he indulges her wonderment and abets her half-formed aspirations at upward mobility; she in turn travels with him to Edinburgh, where they share a room in a hotel full of other itinerant performers. Their relationship could be called romantic in that its chasteness seems romanticized and its paternalism uncriticized (reportedly Tati intended the film of his script to star himself and his own daughter). And yet we know that eventually she’ll outgrow him.
The rest is an array of witty, inspired bits of business, tastefully set among glowing and gorgeous watercolor backgrounds. You’d think that a film full of clowning and miming—and a cartoon no less—would overstate its case, but Chomet’s highly stylized approach actually allows for purity of expression. The Illusionist’s quiet pantomime style keeps it from cloying. It might bore those with a taste for the more coarse, noisy and indelicate tendencies of contemporary animated films. But those who’d rather not continue sifting through so much Shrekage will feel vindicated and rewarded. That its charm seems directly proportional to your receptivity thereto seems like the point.
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
With Jean-Claude Donda and Eilidh Rankin