The Illusionist: movie review
A rich, moving, animated film, 'The Illusionist' draws from a script by Jacques Tati and has a haunting Chaplinesque feel. Not to be missed.
Sylvain Chometâ€™s animated feature â€śThe Illusionistâ€ť is a breathtakingly beautiful achievement in every way. The 2-D graphics seem to beckon from an earlier, less complicated time when animation had a hand-drawn loveliness and simple stories contained complex emotion.
The history of â€śThe Illusionistâ€ť is almost as fascinating as the film itself. In the late 1950s, the late great French auteur Jacques Tati, beloved as the gangly, pipe-puffing Monsieur Hulot in such films as â€śMon Oncleâ€ť and â€śPlay Time,â€ť wrote an extended treatment for a movie about an aging, small-time magician and then, for reasons that remain unclear, shelved it.
The script reverted to Tatiâ€™s daughter Sophie Tatischeff (the familyâ€™s actual surname), who admired Chometâ€™s preliminary sketches for what became the marvelous â€śThe Triplets of Bellevilleâ€ť and surmised that perhaps her fatherâ€™s script, redone as animation, could be realized after all.
She died a few months after passing the script on to Chomet, who, though an admirer of Tati, initially resisted the idea of adapting anybodyâ€™s else material. But the script struck a deep chord within him and, seeing â€śThe Illusionist,â€ť you can see exactly why.
Itâ€™s a Chomet movie and a Tati movie and somehow it all comes together as a perfect whole. At its most touching, itâ€™s even Chaplinesque, and this makes sense: Charlie Chaplin was a great inspiration for both of these French artists. There are moments in â€śThe Illusionistâ€ť that match the piercing melancholy of â€śCity Lights.â€ť It doesnâ€™t get much better than that.
The magician of â€śThe Illusionist,â€ť set in 1959, goes by the stage name â€śTatischeffâ€ť â€“ an obvious indication of Tatiâ€™s personal connection to the character. But this conjurer, although he visually resembles the spindly Hulot, doesnâ€™t quite have his physicality. Hulotâ€™s prancing pirouettes were comic exaggerations of addled indecision.
Tatischeff is sadder and grayer and less nimble. Heâ€™s a relic from the days when vaudeville clowns and music hall magicians were headliners. Now he is reduced to playing third-rate shows to tiny audiences in far-flung towns.
In Scotland, he meets a waifish chambermaid, perhaps 13 or 14 years old, who tags along until he relents and unofficially adopts her. Wide-eyed, she sees him as the dazzling magician he wishes he could be. She believes in magic. He fills out her fantasy by â€śconjuringâ€ť gifts for her â€“ new red shoes and dresses to replace her threadbare garments. What she doesnâ€™t know is that, to pay for the gifts, he slips away each night from the ratty apartment they share in order to work low-end jobs at gas stations and department stores.
Chomet, who also wrote the supernal score, is such a limpid storyteller that he doesnâ€™t need dialogue to clue us in. As in Tatiâ€™s own movies, the characters for the most part speak, when they do at all, in occasional nonsensical riffs and blurts. (The dialogue is a species of sound effect.) Chomet is brisker than Tati, though, who often spaced out his comic sequences with seemingly aimless longueurs that tried the patience of even his most ardent admirers. In â€śThe Illusionist,â€ť you have the essence of an artistic vision without any undue attenuation.
Chometâ€™s visual style, which is capable of expressing the most subtle gradations of daylight, summons up not only â€śThe Triplets of Bellevilleâ€ť but also more somber, Edward Hopperish shades. This is entirely appropriate. â€śThe Illusionistâ€ť is not some heartwarming family-entertainment fable.
Although â€śThe Illusionistâ€ť contains peerlessly comic moments, like the scene where Tatischeff believes the girl has cooked his stage bunny for stew, itâ€™s also irredeemably sad, but in a way that honors the truth of its charactersâ€™ lives. The chambermaid, becoming a woman, attracts a suitor and moves beyond the magician, who, Prospero-like, renounces his magic. He lets us know that â€śmagicians do not exist,â€ť but â€śThe Illusionistâ€ť is undeniable proof that they do. Grade: A (Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.)
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