The Illusionist

****

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Illusionist
"The Illusionist has a sense of humour, a sense of wonder, and a sense of place, and in combination that's enough to make it magical."

The Illusionist is wistful, melancholic, gentle and beautiful. Based on an unmade script by Jacques Tati, animated by Sylvain Chomet, it has gentle humour and a keen eye that make it a treat.

The titular illusionist is quite firm about not being a magician, and his career is not going well. As variety theatres and music halls disappear, he finds himself appearing before ever smaller and ever more distracted crowds. Among his foes are the glittering, giggling rockers The Britoons, whose caterwauling proto-rock'n'roll tends more towards psycho-rock freakout than skiffle. It's one of the various ways that The Illusionist is a little off.

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The story is small - Tatischeff and his rabbit perform for desultory audiences. His rabbit is a pest, not quite as unco-operative as Presto's, but given to biting. In search of work Tatischeff moves from Paris to London, then north to a pub somewhere in the Western Isles, and there he meets Alice. She's a wide-eyed, pretty thing, waitressing and cleaning in the pub until she leaves to follow her illusionist. They find themselves in Edinburgh, in a rooming house catering to the variety trade, and as Alice enjoys herself more and more the magic starts to run out for the illusionist.

There's a lot of visual comedy, unsurprising in an animated film, but a lot of it is hidden, even obscured - a sequence where Tatischeff compares notes with another conjurer, one who looks like Dick Dastardly's grandfather, is entertaining throughout, but might be missed because of what is happening in front of it. There's a recurring character in the form of a laird as drunk as a lord, and his every appearance is comedy. There's a sequence that's directly reminiscent of Tintin's visit to The Black Island, and on the boat it becomes pretty clear that there are true Scotsmen about... There are also several tiny written jokes, newspaper headlines in one case, and the menu board on a chip shop is more or less nothing but comedy, including a "full Scottish breakfast (battered)".

Scotland is one of the many stars - there's something distinctly odd about seeing familiar landscapes rendered as animation, even more so when one has been walking among them moments beforehand. In one sequence Tatischeff stumbles past a cinema screening Tati's Mon Oncle, in and of itself touching, but the oddity is heightened because The Cameo is one of the venues for the Edinburgh Film Festival. There's loads of Edinburgh in the film, some replicated almost exactly, other parts with artistic liberties taken, all familiar enough. The fact that it's set 50 years ago lends some distance, but seeing Edinburgh animated reminds those of us who've tramped its streets just how odd it actually is - multilayered streets, bridges over bridges, the Castle & Arthur's Seat and all that...

In places this film is quite bleak - indeed, in places it's more than, with comedy alcoholism in some quarters obscured by the destitution of some of Tatischeff's colleagues. The acrobats find work in advertising, but the fate of the clown and of the ventriloquist are darker. There is a sadness that permeates The Illusionist, but through it Alice's joy and wonder lighten the tone, and there are plenty of moments of outright comedy.

There's also plenty of bitterness. Agents and impresarios rarely benefit anyone other than themselves, and it's rare that a hand goes into a pocket without someone coming out worse. It's hard to be certain if that negative view of the industry came from Tati or Chomet - Jacques had decades of dealings, and the breakthrough success of Belleville Rendez-Vous can't have come about without some shenanigans. As it is, it provides plenty of opportunities for entertainment. Then there's the treatment of the Britoons, and their ilk - newspaper headlines might allege humourous scandal but the loyalty of their audience and the way their curtain calls affect Tatischeff's act are hilarious.

It's the familiar rendered unfamiliar that makes The Illusionist work - for sure there's a little boy with glasses who gestures to his sleeve in response to a trick, but that's part of the mystery. Even knowing that something was done doesn't mean we know what it was. Tatischeff bestows gift after gift upon Alice, even as his income is depleted, and his attempts to keep that magic going come to the point where they outweigh his attempts to keep working.

In many cases there are reasons why they don't make them like they used to, but none of them apply here - this is good old-fashioned film-making. The Illusionist has a sense of humour, a sense of wonder, and a sense of place, and in combination that's enough to make it magical.

Reviewed on: 16 Jun 2010
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A stage entertainer dedicated to a dying art finds his life transformed by a chance encounter with a young devotee.
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Director: Sylvain Chomet

Writer: Sylvain Chomet, Jacques Tati

Year: 2010

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK, France

Festivals:

EIFF 2010

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