As The Illusionist (L’illusionniste) begins, Tatischeff, the titular performer appears in black and white. On a stage in a small Parisian theater, he shuffles and bows, reveals a couple of playing cards, then pulls a rabbit from a top hat. Following a montage of theater marquees (the magician works hard for his meager money), the film transitions to color. Now you see that Tatischeff wears a red suit, that his socks are orange and match the band on his top hat.
The change to color underscores a couple of things. As adept and assured as Tatischeff may be, as many years as he’s been working and as much attention as he pays to details of appearance—his stock in trade after all—he is also part of an era that’s passing. Based on an unproduced screenplay Jacques Tati wrote in 1956, Sylvain Chomet’s film—rendered in his signature hand-drawn animation and nearly wordless—recalls a kind of entertainment once popular, now largely forgotten. Still, Tatischeff has to make a living and so, when he finds he’s supplanted on stage by other sorts of entertainment—in London, a rock band whose writhing front man wears white boots and a shock of bleached hair (he’s a next generation’s showman)—he takes to the road.
More precisely, he takes to the train and ferry and bus, carrying his rabbit in a crate on his lap as he heads to Scotland, where he arrives in one pub on the same night as electricity. The patrons smoke and drink and, briefly distracted from their routine, turn to applaud their first light bulb. They also appreciate the trick Tatischeff devises to divert them—he produces a string of Christmas tree lights to go along with his usual deck of cards and rabbit.
Here Tatischeff meets Alice, first shown on her knees, washing the pub floor. Her tentative inspection of his poster—red and appealing, if inscribed in a language she doesn’t know—leads to her shy delight in his show. With so many limits on her life, her future one long line of days performing the same tasks again and again, the magician seems literally magic. She believes his tricks to be real. To show her admiration, she launders his shirts—scrubbing them against the rocks in a nearby stream (in the rain!)—and in return, he buys her a pair of new shoes, red ones with a strap, to replace her clunking work boots. As he produces them from under a handkerchief, she’s doubly delighted, believing the illusion he creates and she wants more than anything—that life might be changed with a gesture.
The relationship between Alice and Tatischeff becomes more deeply complicated when she follows him to the ferry, her shabby suitcase in hand—and continues to believe he will produce surprises and gifts, a ferry ticket, a place for her to sleep at his next stop (Edinburgh), as well as a coat with a fur collar and a pair of white shoes with heels. When Alice spots these new fashion options in shop windows, strolling the sidewalk with Tatischeff, she’s simultaneously spotted by city girls, whose sidelong glances or whispers make her aware that she’s more different, more ignorant, than she dreamed.
In drawing this lesson, Alice mirrors Tatischeff, also made self-conscious about his backwardness. But where he has a lifetime of achievement to remember, Alice has all new experiences to look forward to. The film goes on to outline—mostly delicately—their dividing paths: he’s increasingly desperate to find odd jobs to pay for his new habit of buying gifts for his lovely companion, and she’s entranced by a handsome younger man.
As quaint and familiar as their trajectories may be, Chomet’s film is also about something else, another sort of romance. The illusionist—Tati as a stand-in for so many artists—is at once a laborer, earning his rent with a routine that can become grinding, and also a performer, inviting his audience to share in a fantasy and escape. Tatischeff sees his nearing end and also his ongoing necessity, pleasing a fan like Alice or a child he encounters on the train. He also works at his art, refining and reinventing, and finding in it meaning and enjoyment. His audience likewise takes pleasure in him, in his fictions and deceptions, but also in his reflection of their own truths, their desires and their hopes. That he also lives out disappointments, as they do, doesn’t diminish the magic as much as it makes it more believable.