In 1982, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Jacques Tati passed away. Tati crafted a series of films filled with brilliant visual gags, grand locales and odd beauty. This culminated into what many consider his greatest work, Play Time, a film so grand that its ultimate financial failure was inevitable, ruining Tati’s career. Years later he left our world, leaving behind a screenplay that was never realized, until now.
French director/animator Sylvain Chomet made The Illusionist a reality, albeit in his own way: through animation. It’s a film long rumored and promised since Chomet finished his previous feature, The Triplets of Bellville, and was handed the script during the film’s Cannes debut. And finally, years after his earthy demise, Tati returns to the big screen: instantly familiar but different and changed, no longer his iconic M. Hulot.
It’s not from the failure of the animation to adapt Tati’s iconic performances into an animated character—in fact, the resemblance is astounding—but it’s something more, something deeper that traces throughout Tati’s career. In many ways, this is the clear end point to the evolution Tati was going through as a director and screenwriter commenting on the rise of modern society.
The Illusionist lives in a world that has no use for him. His act as a magician no longer holds the weight it once did. He’s packed in-between rock star numbers and dance performances, a mild amusement that holds little value to his audience as he’s often ignored and disregarded. But for once person, he’s still holds a place of awe. A young girl named Alice who turns to him out of curiosity and then finds in him the father she never had.
It’s impossible to watch this film as a fan of Tati without thinking that, in some way, Tati is making a story about himself. Once, a master illusionist, one able to make images that proved funny, inspiring and exciting, Tati was shunned and no longer able to make a living at his own profession. As The Illusionist scrapes by, barely making ends meet, it’s a reflection of Tati’s own decline into obscurity.
And for The Illusionist, the trouble stems from the rise of a society that has lost its interest for magic. In a world filled with wonders of television, the visual illusion has become mundane and everyday. The Illusionist’s best reception by an audience is in a tiny Scottish pub where people clap just as much for the addition of a light fixture before his performance as they do to his show.
Instead, life has been replaced by something else. As The Illusionist and Alice try to settle down, an unexpected tension arises between the two. When The Illusionist met Alice, he gave her a pair of brand new shoes which she desperately needed to replace her beat up shoes. However, as she sees more of the modern world, she sees new wonders that attract her fancy.
A pair of white slippers, a fur coat and many other items become the objects of desire for Alice. And, The Illusionist, in all his grace, decides to acquire what he can for her, even though it strains his thin expenses. The rampant cycle of consumerism is now the driving force of the modern individual, a way of crafting identity and eliciting happiness.
Yet the film also shows how giving to others through material means can be a force for good. Alice and The Illusionist live in a small apartment complex filled with similarly outdated performers: a clown, a ventriloquist and three acrobats. The way in which their lives intersect with those other performers shows how even the simplest kindness can have a deep impact upon an individual’s life.
These tiny vignettes appear to be almost an afterthought, but, in a way, they allow the film to weave another kind of magic, a demonstration of how the lives of people can intersect at key moments. Whether fate or chance, it presents an altogether different kind of magic: transcendent, mysterious and poetic.
The film weaves its own kind of magic almost purely through images. The Illusionist is, for the most part, a film devoid of dialogue. Most of the talking is either intentionally gibberish or muddled or just slightly heard in a flash of French, English or Gaelic. Most of Tati’s films were similarly built around little dialogue, but this one is the least talkative and perhaps teases out the most from its visuals.
The images themselves are fantastic, from the rich detail of a city street to the fleeting shot of a range of mountains, the quality of the animation is consistently top notch and proof that two-dimensional animation still has its place and, quite often, can surpass 3D animation in style, expression and beauty. There’s an artisanship and creativity at work that rarely appears in even the finest of 3D animation.
Putting aside all the grand themes, wonderful characters and delightful animation, I have to say that The Illusionist is a film that has great personal meaning to me. Not only does the film that speaks to my own dark cynicism but it also rekindles the magic for me. Jacques Tati died before I was born. I’ve only been able to experience him though his work in the past.
His films quickly became personal favorites. Play Time forever changed how I looked at movies, M. Hulot’s Holiday brought me great delight and Mon Oncle made me see M. Hulot as more than just a bumbling everyman. But I knew it was all from the past, looking back at something from the archives of film history. No longer is that the case. I’ve experienced a new Tati film, seen a man who was dead become reanimated through the skill of artisans. The impossible became truth: Tati lives.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing