Sylvain Chomet’s animated feature “The Illusionist” is a breathtakingly beautiful achievement in every way. The 2-D graphics seem to beckon from an earlier, less complicated time when animation had a hand-drawn loveliness and simple stories contained complex emotion.
The history of “The Illusionist” is almost as fascinating as the film itself. In the late 1950s, the late great French auteur Jacques Tati, beloved as the gangly, pipe-puffing Monsieur Hulot in such films as “Mon Oncle” and “Play Time,” wrote an extended treatment for a movie about an aging, small-time magician and then, for reasons that remain unclear, shelved it.
The script reverted to Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff (the family’s actual surname), who admired Chomet’s preliminary sketches for what became the marvelous “The Triplets of Belleville” and surmised that perhaps her father’s script, redone as animation, could be realized after all.
She died a few months after passing the script on to Chomet, who, though an admirer of Tati, initially resisted the idea of adapting anybody’s else material. But the script struck a deep chord within him and, seeing “The Illusionist,” you can see exactly why.
It’s a Chomet movie and a Tati movie and somehow it all comes together as a perfect whole. At its most touching, it’s even Chaplinesque, and this makes sense: Charlie Chaplin was a great inspiration for both of these French artists. There are moments in “The Illusionist” that match the piercing melancholy of “City Lights.” It doesn’t get much better than that.
The magician of “The Illusionist,” set in 1959, goes by the stage name “Tatischeff” – an obvious indication of Tati’s personal connection to the character. But this conjurer, although he visually resembles the spindly Hulot, doesn’t quite have his physicality. Hulot’s prancing pirouettes were comic exaggerations of addled indecision.
Tatischeff is sadder and grayer and less nimble. He’s a relic from the days when vaudeville clowns and music hall magicians were headliners. Now he is reduced to playing third-rate shows to tiny audiences in far-flung towns.
In Scotland, he meets a waifish chambermaid, perhaps 13 or 14 years old, who tags along until he relents and unofficially adopts her. Wide-eyed, she sees him as the dazzling magician he wishes he could be. She believes in magic. He fills out her fantasy by “conjuring” gifts for her – new red shoes and dresses to replace her threadbare garments. What she doesn’t know is that, to pay for the gifts, he slips away each night from the ratty apartment they share in order to work low-end jobs at gas stations and department stores.
Chomet, who also wrote the supernal score, is such a limpid storyteller that he doesn’t need dialogue to clue us in. As in Tati’s own movies, the characters for the most part speak, when they do at all, in occasional nonsensical riffs and blurts. (The dialogue is a species of sound effect.) Chomet is brisker than Tati, though, who often spaced out his comic sequences with seemingly aimless longueurs that tried the patience of even his most ardent admirers. In “The Illusionist,” you have the essence of an artistic vision without any undue attenuation.
Chomet’s visual style, which is capable of expressing the most subtle gradations of daylight, summons up not only “The Triplets of Belleville” but also more somber, Edward Hopperish shades. This is entirely appropriate. “The Illusionist” is not some heartwarming family-entertainment fable.
Although “The Illusionist” contains peerlessly comic moments, like the scene where Tatischeff believes the girl has cooked his stage bunny for stew, it’s also irredeemably sad, but in a way that honors the truth of its characters’ lives. The chambermaid, becoming a woman, attracts a suitor and moves beyond the magician, who, Prospero-like, renounces his magic. He lets us know that “magicians do not exist,” but “The Illusionist” is undeniable proof that they do. Grade: A (Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.)
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