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The Illusionist (2010)
Director: Sylvain Chomet

review by J.C. Hartley

Sylvain Chomet's Belleville Rendez-Vous was a superb piece of animation, funny surprising and original. The Illusionist is more melancholic, slower paced, and based upon an un-filmed script by Jacques Tati. There is apparently some controversy about the script, which Chomet sees as a love letter to Tati's daughter Sophie, whose upbringing Tati missed through work commitments, while others have claimed it was an attempt at rapprochement from Tati to his eldest estranged daughter Helga-Marie Jeanne.

Chomet decided to set the film in Edinburgh after being charmed by the city during a visit for a film festival. Sadly, his attempts to set up a long-term animation studio in the city have ended in financial disaster. Inevitably, The Illusionist was over-shadowed by the latest release in the increasingly formulaic Shrek series. Physical comedy has a mixed reception now, possibly because it is so difficult to do well. Chaplin, Keaton, and Stan and Ollie have their modern counterparts, Lee Evans is very good, Robert Benigni too, but often physical comedy is the last resort of an impoverished script.

Tati's films were remarkable ballets of social awkwardness, with the slapstick finely tuned to highlight the precarious passage of his gauche on-screen character, navigating through a milieu that served to highlight the ridiculousness of social situations constructed around contemporary manners. The Illusionist does not quite conform to this model, although the titular magician finds himself in Scotland, performing at the outset at the behest of an eccentric Hebridian laird, and then going on the boards in Edinburgh. Alice, a serving girl from one of the islands, attaches herself to the performer, and they chastely share lodgings in the city until she finds herself a beau, and her protector realises it is time to leave.

Like Toy Story 3, The Illusionist is about loss and the need to move on. The story is played out against the decline of the variety theatre. It is 1959, and the cinema and television is sounding the death knell for live vaudeville. Our magician hero himself stumbles into a movie theatre and sees Tati in Mon Oncle on the big screen. The film's love story seems to be about the magician's unspoken romantic love for Alice, while she converts herself from a na�ve and dowdy girl from the provinces, into a sophisticated young lady, by pointing out the things in shop windows she needs to effect her metamorphosis.

The magician takes on extra work to buy the coat, the shoes, and the dress, that stimulate her emerging beauty. Of course with the backstory it is obvious that the relationship is that of father and daughter, the illusionist frequently looks at a photograph the subject matter of which we never see; his care for Alice is to repay a debt to his own progeny he was unable to fulfil. Having said that, and without the benefit of hindsight, it does play like an impossible, and perhaps inappropriate, romance. At one point the illusionist comes back to their room drunk, and opens Alice's bedroom door, watching her sleep before closing the door on her, and in our own fearful, prurient, and non-comprehending faces.

Edinburgh looks wonderful, rainy and water-coloured. The attention to detail is superb. The film does not have the impact of Belleville Rendez-Vous but it has great charm, and controversy aside its heart is very definitely in the right place. An animator friend of mine was disappointed in The Illusionist, and he thought it would have benefitted from the comedy that made Tati so great; perhaps it was a little too close to home, my friend is himself out of work, his more traditional working technique superseded by the digital age. As I said a film about loss and moving on, but perhaps a film that suggests it is never too late to try and make amends.

The Illusionist



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