Friday, February 11, 2011

The Illusionist: End of an era

The Illusionist (2010) • View trailer for The Illusionist
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite stupidly, because some of these animated characters smoke (!)
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.11.11

Some transitions are smooth and painless; others are painful and cruel.

French animation maestro Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is a melancholy ode to a passing era: the last final gasps of classic vaudeville. The setting is the late 1950s; the title character, Tatischeff, is a stage magician forced by a changing world – and most visibly by the advent of television and rock ’n’ roll – to accept work in a succession of fading and dilapidated theaters, music halls and even bars, often in fringe villages.
Although young Alice would prefer to dine in an upscale restaurant, surrounded
by Edinburgh's "beautiful people," Tatischeff lacks the funds for such an
excursion. The far more practical alternative: fish and chips, of course.

Tatischeff is a master of his craft, but this is of no consequence; nobody cares. Theaters laden with enthusiastic teenagers who swoon over the gyrations of a rock quartet suddenly empty when our magician takes the stage, demonstrating his skill to no more than a handful of aging patrons.

Make no mistake: This is a profoundly sad story. It really can’t be otherwise, because it takes place in our real world, albeit a stylized representation that is meticulously – and lovingly – crafted via hand-drawn animation. The Illusionist is beautiful to watch: gorgeous in the manner of old-style ink-and-paint animation practiced only by a precious few these days. Fans of classic animation will swoon over this film the way they embrace every frame of a Hayao Miyazaki fable (Ponyo, Spirited Away).

No surprise, then, that The Illusionist is competing for the 2010 Academy Award for best animated film, against Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon.

Tatischeff’s first few bookings establish the sad pattern of his life, as he resolutely works his stage miracles to largely indifferent patrons, just to earn enough money to eat, keep a roof over his head, and move on to the next gloomy venue. He eventually winds up at a Scottish tavern and a somewhat more appreciate audience, if only because they’ve been loosened up with liberal quantities of beer.

Here, though, the dynamic changes: He meets Alice, an impressionable teenage girl who works at the tavern. Although a big-city teen probably wouldn’t be so easily impressed, Alice hasn’t yet lost the sense of wonder possessed by all children; perhaps it’s the isolated environment. She believes in Tatischeff; he recognizes and cherishes this. When he “conjures up” a pair of new shoes for the girl, to replace the tattered pair on her feet, her eyes light up: not just at the gift itself, but at the magic by which they appeared.

She elects to leave the tavern when Tatischeff moves on to his next job. Mind you, this is a completely innocent arrangement: a father/daughter relationship, nothing more. They wind up in Edinburgh, where they take a room at the Little Joe Hotel, a boarding house for similarly disenfranchised performers: a sad-faced clown, a too-desperately cheerful ventriloquist, a trio of acrobats. Tatischeff obtains a booking at the nearby Royal Music Hall.

By day, though, he treasures every opportunity to “perform” for his rapt audience of one: Alice. And because she believes in his miracles, she doesn’t realize that when she points to a pretty coat in a shop window, or a matching pair of high-heeled pumps, Tatischeff must somehow figure out how to afford such items. She only sees that they eventually appear “as if by magic.”

Then, too, Tatischeff’s “magical” gifts to her are his own slow undoing: Every new item added to her wardrobe furthers Alice’s transformation from impressionable girl to cosmopolitan young woman ... at which point, eventually, she will cease to believe in magic.

And then – with his stage bookings also dwindling out of existence – what will become of Tatischeff?

The genesis of Chomet’s beautiful but heartbreaking little film – it runs scarcely 80 minutes – is a fascinating story unto itself. The French animator came to our attention back in 2003, with the equally marvelous (but much more cheerful) Triplets of Belleville. At one point in that film, the triplets are shown watching television in bed; the screen features a clip from the 1953 Jacques Tati classic, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

Tati was France’s answer to our own Charlie Chaplin; like Chaplin, Tati kept making silent era-style comedies – known for their enchanting blend of whimsy and poignance – long after all other filmmakers had abandoned the form. Chomet obtained permission for the film clip from Tati’s sole surviving daughter, Sophie Tatischeff; apparently charmed by the animator, she then mentioned a long-buried script – The Illusionist – that her father had written in the late 1950s, but never turned into a movie.

The script was, Tati said at the time, much too deeply personal. He set it aside, went on to make 1967’s more carefree Playtime – another typically frothy and lighthearted Mr. Hulot escapade – and abandoned all thoughts of The Illusionist.

And so it remained in a drawer, until Sophie Tatischeff gave it to Chomet.

Armed with this insight, we see both the silent-era trappings inherent in Chomet’s narrative style – although many of these characters occasionally “talk” in this mostly dialogue-less film, it’s generally in not-quite-discernable gibberish that needs no translation – and the degree to which several of this story’s “little bits” would have been designed for an agile real-world pantomimist such as Tati or Chaplin.

Consider one of Tatischeff’s late-night rambles back to his boarding house room, where inebriation forces him to navigate a set of stairs while not stepping on the little man washing the floor nearby. This scene is a masterpiece of silent acrobatic comedy: just the sort of thing Chaplin or Tati would have done with élan.

Also droll: a dinnertime scene where Alice has cooked a stew, and Tatischeff fears that the main ingredient is his beloved pet white rabbit. (We’re similarly nervous.) The very idea leaves him horror-struck, and yet he’s too polite to question the girl’s hard work ... and so he goes through the charade of expressing delight over the meal, all the while never quite taking a mouthful, as his face screws up into an endless array of pained and worried expressions.

No matter what the comedy or tragedy of a given moment, Chomet’s tone is always gentle and understated. The film only gets “aggressive” once, with respect to its depiction of Billy Boy and the Britoons, the rock quartet that takes countless encores at one point, preventing Tatischeff from getting his turn on the stage. We cannot escape the suggestion that – when he wrote this script – Tati viewed nascent rock ’n’ roll with potential alarm. In terms of the way the music movement spearheaded a transition in the entire entertainment industry, he was right to be concerned.

The looming impact of the other insidious agent of change is depicted more subtly, but no less powerfully. When all the shop lights go out along the streets of Edinburgh late one evening, as the businesses close for the day, only one remains fully illuminated: a television showroom, with every screen in the front window blazing in arresting black-and-white.

This Edinburgh is presented, albeit in animated form, with the same care and authenticity that Jean-Pierre Jeunet brought to his depiction of Paris, in Amelie. Chomet does his best to depict the Royal Mile, with all its colorful shops; this forms the centerpiece of Tatischeff and Alice’s universe throughout much of the story. And our final view of this city is breathtaking: a “flyaway” overview that punctuates the story’s closing act.

Chomet also composed the soundtrack: a lyrical, melodic underscore that’s present nearly all the time – of necessity, given the paucity of dialogue – and smoothly complements the story’s alternating whimsy and grief. Particularly the latter: The quiet lament that accompanies a final glimpse of a pawnshop’s front window is more than many viewers will be able to bear.

Can a masterpiece be too profoundly sad to endure? If we judge a film by its ability to haunt us, days and weeks later, then The Illusionist is a gem. It tells a grimly true story; this is no mere animated flight of fancy. That said, I’m not sure I could stand watching it again, knowing what is to come.

Much as I’d like to.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this insightful review of a fantastic movie Derrick! You put into words many of the feelings I experienced seeing this beautiful film.

    So happy I discovered your movie blog!

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