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The Illusionist

Jacques Tati script receives a lovingly animated adaptation

Photo: Alex Fine, License: N/A

Alex Fine

The Illusionist

Directed by Sylvain Chomet

Opens Feb. 25 at the Charles Theater

Americans may not recognize the bumbling trench-coated main character in The Illusionist, the newest animated movie from the director of The Triplets of Belleville. But French viewers are sure to. He is Monsieur Hulot, the comic alter ego of 1950s and ’60s filmmaker Jacques Tati, star of classics like Mon Oncle and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

The Illusionist is in many ways a tribute to Tati, who wrote the script. But it has also inadvertently reacquainted the viewing public with a scandal Tati tried to hide. The story—from a script Tati kept in a drawer until his death in 1982—is about a lonely, down-at-the-heels magician who meets a young girl enthralled by his abilities and takes her under his wing. It is thought to be a sort of love letter from father to daughter. The controversy surrounds the question of which daughter. Tati had two: Sophie, whom he fathered with his wife, and Helga, the illegitimate product of an early affair. Tati abandoned Helga and never acknowledged her. Director Sylvain Chomet dedicates The Illusionist to Sophie, and Helga’s descendants—particularly her son Richard McDonald—are enraged. They say the script actually represents Tati’s inner turmoil over having abandoned Helga. McDonald told The Guardian that without this context, the movie is “a grotesque, eclectic, nostalgic homage to its author.”

Yet the movie is, on its own merits, lovely. The muted golds, smoky blues, and ivories of the drawings do indeed lend a nostalgic glow to the story, but harsh reality makes frequent appearances, and the mood is never cloying. Tatischeff—Tati’s real last name—is a French magician in 1959 Paris, with a tired bag of tricks, including a recalcitrant rabbit that frequently bites. Unable to draw a crowd in an age when rock bands and television have become the hot new entertainment, he is forced to move from city to city in search of gigs. In a small Scottish town he meets Alice, a poor young cleaning girl who seems to think he is truly magic. She attaches herself to him and they’re off to Edinburgh. It’s a fairy tale that follows the rags-to-riches trajectory—at least for Alice—beginning with a shiny new pair of shoes and ending with a handsome suitor. But the magician’s story is ultimately a poignant one, touching on loss and the passage of time in an unforgiving world. The contrast is alternately funny and sad, but the richness of the animated settings and the exquisite characterization often upstage the story anyway.

The narrative is slow and—like Triplets and Tati’s own films—almost devoid of dialogue. This spare frame gives you time to take in the lovingly rendered details of the drawings, which give a charming particularity to every setting. Tatischeff’s dressing room is cluttered with show posters and props with hidden springs. In Edinburgh, he and Alice eat fish and chips outside a restaurant with a chalkboard menu advertising “deep fried chocolate bar” and other Scottish delicacies. The landscapes are gorgeous washes of color, and incidental scenes can be transfixing: In one, a window blows open, causing the shadow of a book’s pages to flutter along the wall like a bird taking flight, while the curvy arabesques of a coat rack float alongside it. It’s virtuoso animation of the old, labor-intensive variety. (The only departure is a wink to Tati fans, when the magician bursts into a movie theater where the real, live-action Mon Oncle happens to be playing.)

As in Triplets, even the minor characters tend to be delightful caricatures of universal types: A lounge singer is a skeletal woman with a cigarette lighter and ridiculously elongated limbs; agents and businessmen mumble incomprehensibly to one another, gesturing and yelling and shaking hands; a puppeteer is little bigger than his marionette, his face equally exaggerated. When he’s forced to pawn his puppet, he continues talking to his own gesticulating hand.

It seems always to be raining and this too is played to good effect. Scenes are “shot” through rain-streaked glass, and the constant downpour gives a melancholy watercolor wash to many scenes. This is a disconsolate world, one where those who live to make people happy—clowns, puppeteers, magicians—are apt to be lonely drunks contemplating suicide. (Animators of French films get to do that; the characters all smoke cigarettes too.) For the world is a changed place, where boy bands and jukeboxes with flashing lights are slowly replacing the solo entertainer. But whether it’s due to the story of Jacques Tati or the direction of Sylvain Chomet, there’s a sweetness to the sadness.

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