THE ILLUSIONIST (L’ILLUSIONNISTE) (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Based on an original unproduced screenplay by legendary French filmmaker Jacques Tati, THE ILLUSIONIST tells the story of an old sleight of hand magician as he strives to maintain a career that is going out of style. The days of vaudeville and music halls are waning in the late 1950s, so the illusionist takes whatever small jobs he can find.
One gig brings him to a Scottish pub where he’s practically second fiddle to the newly installed electricity. There he meets the teenager Alice, who works at the pub and is delighted by his tricks. After giving her a much-needed new pair of shoes, she decides to accompany him as he seeks employment in Edinburgh. They check into a ramshackle hotel populated with his fellow struggling entertainers and wait to see what may come of their futures.
Adapted and directed by Sylvain Chomet, THE ILLUSIONIST is the next best thing to a new Tati movie. The main character is modeled on the comic actor, and the film follows the themes, tone, and almost wordless style of his cinematic masterpieces.
While a through line emerges, THE ILLUSIONIST often plays out as a succession of small setpieces packed with charm. Many of these scenes involve improvising within a closed environment, whether it’s finding a way to bide time while waiting to take the stage, coming up with novel methods for painting a billboard, or performing in front of a less than riveted audience. As in Tati’s classics, the humor brings forth gentle smiles more than big laughs, but the accumulation of droll enchantments is just as satisfying.
While Tati’s fingerprints are all over the film, this remains undeniably Chomet’s work. THE ILLUSIONIST’S wistfulness regarding changing times and fashions could just as well apply to the hand-drawn style of animation in which the film is lovingly rendered.
This bittersweet tale does not argue against progress. Much of the film is concerned with transitional stages and discovering what wonders these changes bring. Yet THE ILLUSIONIST also urges for retaining old ways and the beauty and magic that is lost when such things are abandoned. Whether it’s this film’s lovely animation or a variety entertainer’s craft, to dispose of these pleasures in the endless quest for the next best thing is to limit the creative possibilities.