[11 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In Jacques Tati’s world, insularity breeds comic contempt. With his timeless creation, Monsieur Hulot, the famed French filmmaker matched Chaplin and Keaton for classic silent shtick. Over the course of his many years in movies, Tati only delivered six full length feature films, but almost all of them (Trafic, Play Time, Mon Oncle, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot) are considered masterworks. When he died in 1982, he left behind several unrealized projects, including a screenplay for something called The Illusionist. Fast forward two decades and Oscar nominated animation director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplettes of Belleville) decided to realize Tati’s lost vision. The result is a film fully in sync with the late great’s designs, with just enough of a contemporary spin to win over a modern moviegoer.
It is clearly the end of the line for our aging magician. It’s the late ‘50s/early ‘60s and rock and roll is sweeping variety out of theater door. Still, our hero trudges around the French and British countryside, taking any gig that will pay him. When a drunken Scotsman witnesses his act, he immediately invites our hero to his isolated fishing village. There, the illusionist wows the locals, including a young girl named Alice. After showing her kindness and compassion, he allows her to be his new traveling companion. Setting up shop in a cheap entertainer’s hotel, the magician makes his way in the world, trying to provide Alice with the material comforts she so desperately wants. Of course, as she ages, her eye turns to boys, and no amount of parental prestidigitation can help her overcome a potentially broken heart.
Styled after the kind of man/child movies made popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, The Illusionist is a soft, subtle entertainment. There is no real revisionist edge, no attempt to contemporize Tati to make him more palatable to the standard cartoon demo. Instead, we get the basic set-up (little girls wants to explore the outside world with new ersatz father), the comic set-pieces such a travelogue presents, and the always maudlin manipulations that take place into between the pratfalls. In this gentle, genial effort, our performing relic has no unknown personal motive. Like himself, he sees a human being struggling and is determined to make Alice’s life as pleasant as possible.
Luckily, Chomet emphasizes some of the darker ancillary elements to keep things from becoming too sweet and saccharine. In the hotel, we meet a suicidal clown, lost in a bottle and laughed at (and beat up) by the ankle biting audience that should adore him. As his arc reaches a crucial point, Alice’s honest affection provides a nice counterbalance. Similarly, a failing ventriloquist offers an additional level of poignancy and pathos. His story is not quite as easy, however. This will all be a bit much for an animation audience ready to laugh at limitless pop culture references and sly movie spoofs. The Illusionist is far more old fashioned, but in a good, grateful manner. It realizes it’s going for something soft and subtle and always remembers the inherent limits in such an approach.
Since there is no discernible dialogue, no actual conversations between characters (that we can honestly understand, that is), Chomet has to use drawing style and character design to sell certain emotions - and he and his crew manages magnificently. Without the typical stunt voice casting to carry things, it’s all about the craft. All of the effort, from an undeniably brilliant pen and ink interpretation of Tati himself to the wondrous watercolors used to illustrate the various weathered countrysides are spectacular. It reminds one of why hand drawn animation is so special in the first place. It captures tone and temperament brilliantly without resorting to fancy faked photorealism - and since this is a fairytale/fable in the first place, such wistful ways really sell the storyline.
At its core, The Illusionist is about the false front of fatherhood. Tati apparently wrote the piece in part as an apology to a long lost daughter, and you can see the mea cuplas everywhere. When our hero first takes Alice under his wing, he recognizes her need for better shoes. By the midway point, the teen’s needs reflect her growing femininity. Toward the end, when the magician is doing everything and anything to make his “child” happy, it’s sexual attraction that does the most damage. As Alice falls deeper into love with a handsome young man from across the street, she no longer needs her “daddy” - or at least, that’s what our forlorn lead believes.
Sure, it sounds syrupy and mawkish, laced with the kind of tear jerking gestures guaranteed to get the eye lines nice and moist. But The Illusionist fully comprehends such concerns and merely ladles on the sincerity. This is a movie that believes - rightfully so - that being open and honest with your intentions will make audiences appreciate the sentiment. Indeed, without words, actions must speak louder, and all physical comedy aside, the lengths to which the magician will go to lift a sad little girl’s spirit are indeed heartwarming. Yes, we laugh when he can’t quite figure out how to wash a gleaming white car, or joins a group of aerialists as they paint advertising posters, but the real feeling comes with witnessing how much love a lonely old man can have for an equally misplaced child.
Because it caters to a certain form of cartoon classicism, The Illusionist is often more sweet than laugh out loud funny, more clever that completely entertaining. It’s so old school that you almost smell the mothballs. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a new and novel thing in the slam bang spoof send-up silliness of 2011’s CG reliant cinema. Like taking a trip back in time to a place where jokes don’t beat you over the head with their wry, nod and wink irony, The Illusionist caters to a more mannered, more quixotic age. Along with the rest of Jacques Tati’s amazing oeuvre, it argues for the very foundations of the motion picture comedy. It may not always been hilarious, but it’s definitely comfortable and homey.