Review: The Illusionist
Triplets of Belleville creator dazzles with this melancholy tale of an aging magician
Last Updated: Thursday, January 20, 2011 | 3:55 PM ET
By Lee Ferguson, CBC News
Fans of the wonderfully wonky animated film The Triplets of Belleville (2003) have reason to rejoice this week. French director Sylvain Chomet is back with The Illusionist, the wistful story of an aging magician that’s every bit as assured as the animator’s manic debut.
While the script might owe a debt to Jacques Tati, the imagery in The Illusionist suggests a new French master in the making.
The film’s opening — a brief, dizzying survey of the music halls and cabaret clubs that were all the rage in 1950s Paris — promises viewers they are in for a show. And they sure get one, courtesy of Tatischeff, a tall, gangly gent (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) attempting to entertain a crowd by pulling a feisty, unco-operative rabbit out of his hat. The act doesn’t quite come off. Tatischeff gets an even cooler reception in London, where he takes to the stage after a set by a Beatles-esque pop group who are clearly all the rage. Left to perform his sleights of hand for a nearly empty house, he’s a magician in search of an audience.
Things perk up when the man travels to rural Scotland, where the ale-soused revellers at a tiny pub still appreciate his ability to enchant using only a hat, a cane and a fake bouquet. He finds a real fan in Alice (Eilidh Rankin), the young teen who mops the bar’s backrooms. Innocent enough to still believe in magic, Alice follows Tatischeff to Edinburgh, where the two take up residence in a ramshackle hotel. The hallways hustle and bustle with other colourful entertainers, including a ventriloquist, some hyperactive acrobats and a very sad-sack clown.
The Illusionist’s story is based on a script written in the 1950s by Jacques Tati, the famed French director and actor best known for his cycle of films featuring that clumsy character in a trench coat, Monsieur Hulot. Glimmers of Tati’s trademark humour burble up throughout The Illusionist, notably in a screwy comedic bit where Tatischeff wrestles with an unruly oil hose at the garage where he works part time. More explicit (and amusing) connections emerge when the aging cartoon magician ducks into a movie theatre that’s showing Tati’s Mon Oncle and spies an on-screen character who bears a striking resemblance to himself.
Yet while The Illusionist’s script might owe a debt to Tati, the imagery suggests a new French master in the making. The film is unbelievably gorgeous, and while Chomet works in a decidedly old-fashioned mode — drawing his quirky characters by hand — the result is so detailed, there were moments I forgot I was watching an animated film. Seeing Alice and the magician wander the Edinburgh streets, you can see every crease on Tatischeff’s ill-fitting suit, and every bit of lettering on the shop windows they pass by.
One of the most striking things about Chomet’s handiwork is how attuned he is to lighting. As The Illusionist progresses, the hotel rooms Alice and Tatischeff inhabit shift as subtly as a chameleon’s skin, moving from bright-spring greens and yellows to much darker greys and browns in the film’s final stages. In one exquisite moment, Alice is glimpsed sleeping, while the neon sign from a neighbouring hotel casts brief, intermittent flickers of light on her face. The scene captures Chomet’s delicate touch.
Just as the amber light wanes, The Illusionist’s story gradually morphs into something quite melancholy. Fighting to eke out a living in a milieu where fellow entertainers are either hiring agents or dropping out altogether, Tatischeff strives to provide for both himself and his young companion, who’s fast developing a taste for glamorous fashions. Odd jobs are required to pay the rent, and one of the most moving things about the film is seeing how Tatischeff maintains a strange dignity, even when he’s using his showmanship skills to display bras and spritz perfumes in department store windows.
The Illusionist is all the more impressive considering Chomet tells the story with almost no dialogue. The director’s painterly images do the talking instead, building in force until Tatischeff’s struggles feel like a cry for an older, simpler way of life. In one of his more defeated moments, Tatischeff informs Alice, “magicians do not exist.” Yet after sitting through every stunning frame of The Illusionist, audiences will be forced to conclude otherwise.
The Illusionist opens in Toronto on Jan. 21, Vancouver on Jan. 28 and Montreal and Ottawa on Feb. 4.
Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.
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