Theatrical Releases: ‘The Illusionist’

When you’re writer and director Sylvain Chomet, following up your universally adored and critically acclaimed first feature, whilst at the same time meeting the subsequent expectations that inherently come with such accolades, is understandably going to be an immensely difficult and somewhat daunting task.

However, just as he did with Belleville Rendezvous (2003), with his latest animated offering The Illusionist (2010), Chomet has delivered yet another fantastically assured film, one which even transcends the brilliance of his first feature.

Adapted from a screenplay written by Jacques Tati, the legendary writer, director and comic actor of films including Jour de Fête (1949) and Mon Oncle (1958), The Illusionist is in every sense a sumptuous banquet of visual pleasure. Through his realisation of Tati’s script, not only does Chomet offer a heart felt and tender exploration of the past and of life itself, but he also treats each and every viewer to a cinematic tour-de-force in animation, story-telling, direction and musical composition, making it one of the greatest audio-visual adventures of the past 10 years (Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away [2001] perhaps aside).

Like Chomet’s Belleville, The Illusionist is a semi-silent movie with rudimentary, mumbled fragments of dialogue accompanied by a touching and elegiac soundtrack. The film begins in Paris, 1959, where our main protagonist, Tatischeff, works as a struggling illusionist who has an affinity for all manner of vaudeville magic. Lack of work forces him to leave France for England, where he heads north and acquires a young companion, the sweet yet naïve Alice from rural Scotland, who consequently believes Tatischeff’s illusions to be real. The pair travel together and eventually end up in Edinburgh where the movie draws to a close, but not without ending on a poignant, heart-breaking yet optimistic message.

Despite the plot seeming deceptively simple, a great deal is contained within the body of The Illusionist’s story. As noted, the film explores a variety of issues surrounding generational companionship and the coming-of-age narrative strand is at its core, throughout. However, it is also important to realise that many other facets are tightly stitched into the fabric of the film. For example, Chomet’s feature consistently explores the passing of time and exhibits a quiet despair at the dawning of a new age. Our protagonist finds himself increasingly disillusioned with the world, trapped in a society which is rapidly expanding and changing all at once. In affiliation, the text is adorned with a number of motifs which represent this shift; changes in fashion (Alice’s dresses and shoes), increasing affluence (the snooty man at the garage) and the birth of alternative musical styles (Billy Boy and the Britoons) to name but a few. In many ways, Chomet’s adapted script draws us towards a compassionate remembrance of the forgotten arts, displayed through the variety of characters our protagonists meet on the their travels; the clowns, mimes, ventriloquists, acrobats and illusionists – vaudeville acts discarded and rendered obsolete by changing tastes in an evolving world.

Beyond this, The Illusionist is at heart a pensive, melancholy affair. Its soft, gentle lines and the pastel colours of its landscapes and townscapes are imbued with a nostalgia and romance much like that of a fictional childhood e.g. the visions of the old King’s Cross railway station, the old boat-train, pastoral scenery, even the Edinburgh seaside and its lonely cry of gulls – every frame is deeply moving and exquisitely crafted. It is a touching fable of human relationships, emotions, experiences and life itself, taking into account all the ephemeral moments we so easily forget, whilst asking us to remember that ageing art forms (2D animation, in a 3D-obsessed world) still persist in creating something truly extraordinary. The Illusionist should be compulsory viewing for all ages.