The Illusionist

“Magicians don’t exist.”

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is a curious film to say the least.  It is a “silent” film or, rather: there’s no dialogue. There’s sound effects, music, even a gibberish song, but no dialogue. This new French Animation delight shares this same contempt for the spoken word. I doubt there’s more than twenty words in the entire movie. In an age where movies are filled with hours of mindless chatter and jabberwocky, The Illusionist champions a near-forgotten virtue of silence. Instead of resorting to the vulgarities of human language to tell its story, this film is purely visual. When the characters do “speak” it’s in a weird mish-mash of English and French or simply non-distinct mumbling. Charlie Brown’s mother could have written the dialogue. It’s a beautiful silence which I find refreshing.

The Illusionist is a wonderful and touching film that basks in simplicity. I say Charlie Brown’s mother could have written it, but she didn’t. Jacque Tati (Monsieur Hulot, Mon Oncle) did way back in the fifties. Now, Sylvain Chomet a French director has created a lovely tribute to Tati based on the comedian’s decades-old screenplay. Chomet has adapted it to be sure, adding bits and pieces of Tati’s life to the plot. The main character’s name is Taticheff, which was Tati’s birth name. The Illusionist is about (aptly) an old Illusionist whose career has suffered greatly since the beginning of rock & role. Now he is reduced to performing in obscure little theatres and weddings mostly for old people and young children. He travels to Scotland and there picks up a companion in a young girl named Alice who for some reason finds his hokey magic tricks either intriguing or endearing. He tolerates her and dotes upon her, buying all sorts of shoes and clothes at her behest. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Uh-oh!  An older man traveling around Britain with a young girl?  That’s disturbing!” But remember, this is a French film and they can do things like that without being about Hugh Heffner. Not once is their relationship creepy or unwholesome: it’s not even really romantic.

So Alice and Taticheff find themselves in Edinburgh. Taticheff performs at a local theatre while Alice stays in the hotel learning how to cook. At night they go out walking where Taticheff squanders his money away on presents for Alice. Their world is one of beautiful visuals: a lovely universe of watercolor and movement. This isn’t a typical animation film. There’s hardly any action and it’s not at all geared at children, mostly because it’s not a narrative. No, this is a mood piece, not a linear story. Somehow these surreal drawings manage to equate all of the most basic emotions without seemingly any effort. This is a beautifully crafted movie quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Then again it’s such a French movie. If you’re coming off the typical Hollywood production then this film will not please you in the least, for there’s no big climax at the end and no real pay-off. Ah, this is just simply emotion in watercolor. I can’t say enough about this gem of a picture. I love it!  I really do. I have a feeling that the movie will bore many people with its slow pace and leisurely plot, but not me. I found it charming from first to last. Just as 2009’s Up was a cinematic masterpiece in its way, The Illusionist is a great film in another.

This entire movie reminds me in an odd way of many of the montages in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The shots are very simple, yet slow and contemplative and powerful. I remember a particular scene in this movie where Taticheff finds Alice all alone in the middle of the street at night. A car’s headlights are racing toward her, sure to squash her.  He steps out into the street with her and holds up his hand and just as the car’s lights come upon them they diverge and it is revealed that it is really two motorcycles riding alongside each other. For some reason that short little engagement really strikes me as something very, very special. Sometimes this movie is sad, sometimes it’s exciting, and sometimes it’s just a wonder. There’s something to be said for pure spectacle in movies, and The Illusionist certainly has that. In the early 1990s, the Walt Disney Company took animation to the next level by making it appear more and more realistic. Now the best animated films are the ones that seem to be a little bit out of this world. The drawings up on the screen are more pictures of a soul than a human body. Taticheff’s proportions are not anatomically correct. One wonders if a picture of his soul would be more accurate to the proportions on screen: sort of a modern Picture of Dorian Gray.

As hard as I try, I can’t think of another animated film that’s quite like The Illusionist. This year the film is up for an Academy Award in the Best Animated Feature category along with toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon. I haven’t seen the latter, but I have seen the former and I can honestly say that I think The Illusionist is a much better film than Toy Story 3. Toy Story will probably win, but I’m really pulling for this little movie.

After Taticheff closes down shop at the theatre in Edinburgh, he begins doing several odd jobs around town, many having to do with “illusionism”. Alice begins taking an interest in a young man across the street from the hotel. The final few minutes of the movie are both heart-breaking and exciting. We as the audience want to know how the pair’s adventure will end or even if it will end. However, despite all of the rush of emotions at the end, the film maintains its silent, slow paced meandering. When the final frame went black on screen, I sat watching the credits wondering what I had just seen. It’s very much like a dream: not always coherent and not always predictable, but always meaningful. The film seems like the reflections of an old man who once lived a very eventful life, but can now only tell stories about his grand adventures. I can imagine a story like this being told around a living room by an old chap rocking in a chair by the fireplace. It’s an appreciative movie that won’t soon leave your conscience. I always find it amazing in animation how an artist or animator can get such feeling from these little sketches. Like Pixar and Walt Disney and Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli, Sylvain Chomet’s movie is a unique and charming movie with lots of heart and affection to spare.

I think this movie is a labor of love, and that’s what makes it so good. Without the love it’s just frame after frame of silent brooding. If a film can be so simple and yet so meaningful, then it has to be a good movie, no matter which way you look at it.

Ciné B and Django Films presents a Jacques Tati film

Cast: voices of Jean-Claude Donda and Eilidh Rankin.  Directed by Sylvain Chomet

Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking / Release Date: 25 December 2010


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One Response to The Illusionist

  1. Guy Jordan says:

    I got lucky and caught the Illusionist on cable television, and then bought the DVD. This is a bittersweet film, with a lot of the bitter coming on at the end, contrasted only by Alice and her boyfriend walking among that sea of umbrellas.

    The little apartment where Alice and the Tati stayed in Edinburgh seemed important to the director. During the ending, he lingered in the empty place, the wind coming through the window, blowing the ventriloquist’s cook book open and spinning the pages. When Alice rejoined her new boyfriend (probably her future in the late 1950s) we see it through the window of the now empty living room that Alice made a home for the Illusionist and his rabbit. And everyone in St Joe’s is gone, the clown, the ventriloquist, and the acrobats.

    Bittersweet stories are the ones that stay with us the longest.

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