Talking Pictures

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The Illusionist / L’illusioniste

Posted by keith1942 on September 20, 2010

This is a new animated film by Sylvain Chomet, whose first feature was the memorable Bellevue Rendezvous (Les Triplettes de Belleville, 2002). It is also based on a script by the now deceased French director Jacques Tati. One can see recognisable elements from both these authors in the film, though it seems to me that Tati predominates. This is unsurprising because Chomet is clearly a Tati fan. There were references to Tati in both his early short film La Vielle Dame et les pigeons (1998) and in his first feature.  In this film the protagonist, the magician Tatischeff, bears Tati’s own name, and at one point enters a cinema to be confronted by a screening of Tati’s 1967 film Playtime.

Part of Chomet’s contribution is his command of animation techniques. The film is constructed from both hand-drawn 2D techniques for characters and digital 3D techniques for props and backgrounds. These are combined to produce a beautifully crafted film in which is created a slightly fantastic but also nostalgic world. The locations include Paris, London, Northwest Scotland and Edinburgh, following the odyssey of Tatischeff.

Set in 1959, his odyssey is a search for a responsive audience when the music hall world in which he works is in serious decline. This is point is made strongly in a recurring scene where Tatischeff is upstaged by a rock and roll band, and in another by a jukebox. The latter occurs on a Scottish island, which has just seen the arrival of electricity. This is a typical Tati-esque symbol of modern technology.

What seems to offer a redemptive chance is the encounter on the island between the ageing magician and a young serving girl, Alice. She both believes in and is entranced by his ensemble of tricks. This is a father-daughter relationship, and substantial part of the plot is set in Edinburgh where they attempt a new life together. The Tati script appears to have some reference to Tati’s relationship with his own daughter Sophie. Thus the film includes both the decline found in old age and the budding forth found in youth.

The character of Jacques Tati is emphatically present in the film. The tall, gangling Tatischeff immediately conjures up Tati’s own screen appearances. But the mood here is distinctly downbeat. The bumbling Monsieur Hulot tends to win out over the modernity that he confronts by sheer blind, dogged perseverance. In The Illusionist his alter ego repeatedly fails to hold back the tide of modern technological entertainment. Moreover, whilst Hulot seems impervious to the actual nature of modernity, Tatischeff is keenly aware of how it is replacing his world.

The film lacks the spiky and zany slapstick of Bellevue Rendezvous. The attractions of that film included weird but endearing characters like the hero’s grandmother and the overweight family dog. These are sadly missing in The Illusionist. The only example among the lead characters is Tatischeff’s irascible rabbit, presumably peeved by being constantly shoved into and then plucked out of a top hat. There is the young pop group, Billy Boy and the Britoons. But, as their name suggests, this is not a sympathetic characterisation.

It seems that in the original script the city in which the father-daughter idyll occurs was Prague. Chomet has substituted Edinburgh because his studio is now based there. However, the differences between these cities seem to express the differences between Chomet’s two features. I do sense Edinburgh as a city marketing its traditions with an element of nostalgia: nostalgia brilliantly satirised in Danny Boyle’s early films. This may be on aspect of Prague but there is another, the surrealism represented by Jan Svankmajer: also an animator. He is part of a long tradition in Prague, going back to the work by Arcimboldo for the royal court. Belleville Rendezvous had that absurdist look, though it was less subversive and more nostalgic. The Illusionist has a much stronger emphasis on nostalgia. Moreover, the final parting of Tatischeff and Alice suggest that the magic of the old, traditional world cannot survive in the new, modern world. This bittersweet development and resolution of the plot offers only a hint of irony.  It does though, offer a rather different take on Tati’’ own world and his satiric commentary on much modern development.

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