Details the story of a dying breed of stage entertainer whose thunder is being stolen by emerging rock stars. Forced to accept increasingly obscure assignments in fringe theaters, garden parties and bars, he meets a young fan who changes his life forever.
An animation release firmly at odds with the prevailing trends of the field, The Illusionist is based on a previously written screenplay by the wonderful French comic director and actor Jacques Tati. The creator of the iconic Monsieur Hulot, who passed away in 1982 at the age of 75, Tati wrote the piece in the mid to late 1950s, around the time he was working on one of his defining works, 1958’s Mon Uncle. The origins are agreed upon, but not the inspiration, with those making the adaptation, including director Sylvain Chomet, disagreeing with some members of Tati’s family.
The particulars of the debate – which centres upon which younger family member Tati was trying to make amends with by penning this melancholic story with personal themes, and whether it was too personal for him to want to make it – aren’t essential, but they do bear relevance since the finished film itself is such a tribute to Tati. The film’s protagonist, Tatischeff (Tati’s Russian-derived birth name), is a fading stage magician, who looks upon the world with qualities reminiscent of Tati’s own characters, including quiet bewilderment and a sense of physical uncertainty that could blossom into a comic misstep at any moment.
In the music halls of first Paris and then a rainy London, Tatischeff (Jean-Claude Donka) has few fans; the latter city has him waiting for a rapturously received, self-satisfied beat combo to finish their set to teenage hysteria. (In a lovely touch the band, The Britoons, keep popping up, in newspapers and on stages.) An engagement at a pub in the isolated Scottish highlands goes better, but electricity – and a jukebox with The Britoons hit on it – arrives in the magician’s wake. Even his spiteful rabbit has no time for the gifted but warily ageing magician.
He does bring a companion, a naïf-like maid named Alice (Eilidh Rankin), back from the lochs, and the pair chastely act out a Chaplin-like relationship, close to bereft of dialogue as was Tati’s preference (the odd sentence and grunt occur, but there’s no subtitles by way of indicating how what you see matters more than what you hear). In an Edinburgh that’s all aqua greens and browns, with night-time vistas that soak up the watercolour-like daubs of colour the animators use, Tatischeff indulges the young woman, who believes in his illusions, by buying her clothes and gifts she innocently pines for even as his career dissipates. (If Tati had shot this screenplay, he might have needed Audrey Hepburn to pull off the role.)
Chomet’s previous animated feature was 2003’s antic The Triplets of Belleville, and part of his style remains, with portly ingrates and stick-like divas dotting the theatrical milieu. But a sad clown and a poor ventriloquist share the couple’s hotel, and melancholy is never far from the surface. Tati’s Monsieur Hulot was confounded, but never bowed, by modern technology, but Chomet has erred on the side of sentimentality. Snatches of Tati-like humour feature, such as a gust of wind moving a cookbook page so that Tatischeff worries that Alice has turned his rabbit into dinner, but despite the lovingly crafted look of The Illusionist, it’s somewhat slight in terms of characters and given to bleak contemplation.