The Illusionist (2010)


Directed by: Sylvain Chomet

Written by: Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet, Sylvain Chomet

Around three years ago, a friend (and I forget which one exactly, but it was one of two) recommended that if I hadnít seen a particular obscure French animated film, I should rectify the situation immediately. The film in question was Belleville Rendez-Vous, and as luck would have it, the Times just happened to be giving away a copy of the film free on DVD with the paper one Saturday shortly afterwards.

Iíve found over the years that animated films can spark either febrile, wild-eyed devotion, or fail to engage me at all; Hayao Miyazaki and Pixarís work belongs to the former category, most Anime and non-Pixar CG animation the latter. As such, as I sat down to watch the film, I wasnít at all sure what would awaited me; something I would cherish as much asToy Story, or something that would be as forgettable as those Japanese features Channel Four used to show late at night on the weekends?

It would transpire that Belleville Rendez-Vous was in fact terrific, a surreal yet sophisticated, masterpiece, a singular triumph. You may have passed me on the street, stripped naked to the waist, exhorting its virtues, and they are multitude, from the beautiful if off-beat visuals, to the parade of idiosyncratic characters. Despite the film containing very little in terms of dialogue throughout its 79 minutes, and instead relying on mimesis and some unorthodox sound effects to tell its tale, itís utterly engaging and enchanting.

Fast forward to a week or so ago; I was at the cinema in Glasgow utilising my alleged ĎUnlimitedí card (it is in fact subject to any number of qualifying factors), and as I waited for my second choice selection to start, I was flicking through the chainís magazine of upcoming releases, and there was The Illusionist, director Sylvain Chometís follow up to Belleville Rendez-Vous. Based on an unfilmed script by acclaimed French actor and director Jacques Tati, Chomet relocated the setting of the screenplay to the Scottish city of Edinburgh, where he had himself recently founded a studio.

The film, a metaphor for Tatiís relationship with his own daughters (precisely whether it specifically regards the legitimate or illegitimate one remains unclear), concerns a French illusionist trying to cope with his profession being marginalised by increasingly younger, more sexual musical acts and television in the late 1950s. Travelling to London for work, he crosses paths with a Scotsman at a function, and is invited to perform his act in a small pub on a Hebridean island. There, the landlordís teenage daughter takes a shine to him, partly because she thinks he is a real magician. When M. Tatischeff leaves the island to return to the mainland, the girl furtively tags along. They then head for Edinburgh, where he attempts to find a music hall or theatre that will put on his act, with mixed success.

The Illusionist is just as minimalist as Belleville Rendez-Vous in terms of dialogue, but itís even less so where plot is concerned. Nothing much happens here, but it happens in a serenely beautiful way; a gently caricatured and mildly skewed 1950s Edinburgh (still recognisable as the real city, even to a Glaswegian) looks idyllic, and almost becomes a character itself. While sharing some superficial similarities with the directorís previous work, itís still different in many ways; itís at once both more adult in terms of plot, and yet there are more laugh out loud moments. Most notably, there is a seam of underlying pathos as the various music hall stars cope with their stars fading in their own way, eventually all reaching similar conclusions.

I cannot eulogise The Illusionist enough; it is a wonderful film, exquisitely animated, perfectly paced, and opaquely evocative. And it says, with very few words, more than most films. Perhaps the visuals do their job for them.


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