Film Review: The Illusionist

The unusual partnership between two French filmmakers—Sylvain Chomet and the late Jacques Tati—results in a beautiful, touching feat of movie magic.

French animator Sylvain Chomet first rose to international prominence with his delightfully odd 2003 confection, The Triplets of Belleville. For his long-awaited sophomore effort, The Illusionist, he’s delivered a film that’s substantially different in tone, yet still bears many of the hallmarks that made that its predecessor such a pleasure, among them beautiful hand-drawn animation, richly designed characters and a sly, knowing sense of humor.
Actually, the latter element can also be credited to the movie’s original author, master French filmmaker Jacques Tati. The writer/director/star of such influential screen comedies as Mon Oncle and Playtime penned the script for The Illusionist in the late ’50s—depending on who you believe, it was either written for his daughter Sophie or for an illegitimate child he fathered and abandoned during World War II—but never got the opportunity to film it before his career effectively ended in the ’70s. (He died in 1982, having made his last completed movie in 1974.)

Like all of Tati’s scenarios, the overarching narrative of The Illusionist is simple, but the way it is told—and the emotions it inspires—are wonderfully complex. Set in a stylized version of ’50s-era Scotland, the film revolves around its titular illusionist, an elderly veteran of the European music hall circuit who finds that the demand for his services is drying up with the rise of a new youth culture that would rather watch floppy-haired rock ’n’ rollers jam on their instruments.

Early on, there’s a small, almost throwaway moment that essentially lays out the arc for the rest of the movie: While dutifully going through his routine before a virtually empty house, the illusionist notices a young girl lean over to her mother and gesture as if she’s figured out exactly how he’s performing his tricks. For this youngster, there’s no magic happening onstage, just an old man pretending to pull a rabbit out of his sleeve.

With that image burned in his brain, the illusionist accepts an invitation to perform at a pub in a remote Scottish village, the kind of place that still seems untouched by the modern world. (Although not for long—in another subtle touch, Chomet depicts the pub’s owner replacing his candle lamps with an electric lightbulb right before the illusionist begins his act. And after he performs his last trick, a brand-new jukebox is wheeled into the room and the crowd starts shaking their hips.) It’s here that he encounters Alice, a wide-eyed maid who genuinely believes his illusions are real magic. When he departs to look for a steadier gig in Edinburgh, she tags along and becomes a surrogate daughter, cleaning their cramped apartment and in general looking after him, as well as the other vaudeville performers who inhabit the building. In return, he lavishes her with attention and gifts, which he pretends he conjures up for free but in actuality cost him his savings and force him to take on a second job. When love blossoms between Alice and the handsome young man in a neighboring apartment, he realizes it’s time to bring her illusion of their life together to an end.

In the press notes, Chomet indicates that he made only minor changes to Tati’s script, such as moving the setting from Prague to Edinburgh and creating a handful of new supporting characters. Anyone familiar with Tati’s work can certainly see how faithful he remains to the filmmaker’s general aesthetic, largely eschewing dialogue and allowing the narrative to play out in an unhurried series of set-pieces, some of which are built around broad comic bits while others possess a more melancholic tinge. Like his deceased collaborator, Chomet also pays close attention to the surrounding environment of each scene. His animated landscapes and cityscapes are beautiful works of art, with clever details and gags sketched into almost every frame.

It’s only appropriate that the director chose to tell this story with hand-drawn 2D images, rather than the computerized animation that most cartoon features employ these days. After all, much like Tati watched the music hall performers of his youth give way to other forms of entertainment, so too is Chomet one of the last major animators still working with pen and ink. (Not that The Illusionist is entirely without computer enhancement—a spectacular panorama of Edinburgh likely wouldn’t have been possible without a digital assist.) That sense of sadness for a vanishing tradition is what unites the two filmmakers across the decades. Tati may not have lived to see The Illusionist produced, but one imagines he would have approved of the film Chomet made.