The Illusionist

The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste) (2010)

The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste) first published by Sight & Sound, September 2010

Review: Revered French filmmaker/comic Jacques Tati died, aged 75, in 1982, the same year that Sylvain Chomet finished high school – and yet there is a love for Tati in the animator’s work that transcends their generational differences, and even time itself. Chomet’s first short, La vieille dame et les pigeons (1998), paid homage to Tati’s Playtime (1967) by opening and closing with a chorus of crass American tourists in Paris – and his debut feature Belleville Rendez-Vous (Les triplettes de Belleville, 2003) featured a poster for Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (Les Vacances de M. Hulot, 1953) prominent in the titular triplets’ apartment, showed the triplets cackling away at a live-action excerpt from Tati’s Jour de Fête (1949), made free use of Tati’s trademark combination of nostalgic conservatism and clownish absurdity, and openly acknowledged its debt to Tati’s ‘creative spirit’ in the closing credits.  

With his second feature, The Illusionist, Chomet takes this love further. In a sequence towards the film’s end (and set in 1959), a hand-drawn figure who closely resembles Jacques Tati (and who even shares the director’s birthname, Tatischeff) ducks into an Edinburgh cinema. In the lobby a poster is clearly visible for Belleville Rendez-Vous – even though this film was not to be made, or even conceived, until some four decades later. Tatischeff then moves on to the auditorium, where he is confronted with a live-action version of himself, as the real Tati is seen on-screen playing his alter ego Monsieur Hulot in Mon Oncle (1958). Here, cinema is envisaged as a magical hall of mirrors in which Chomet can conjure an impossible dance across time and space between himself, the late director who has been his greatest inspiration, and their own respective filmic personae. 

If The Illusionist feels like a film that Tati might himself have conjured, that is because it is closely adapted from a screenplay that Tati in fact wrote between 1956 and 1959, but that he then shelved for fear of the damage that such a weighty piece might do to his carefully cultivated on-screen image, instead directing his attentions to the less personal, altogether less bleak Hulot vehicle Playtime. Chomet slyly acknowledges this in a scene where Tatischeff is shown holding a swanky restaurant’s glass door open for a well-to-do couple, apparently about to reprise one of the most famous slapstick sequences in Playtime. This routine is interrupted when a voice on the soundtrack is heard to shout ‘Non, non!”, rejecting the chaotic slapstick of Playtime and pulling Chomet’s animation right back to the road not taken by Tati. In fact these negatives comprise some of the only intelligible words spoken in a film that is, like all of Tati’s (and Chomet’s) films, virtually free of all dialogue – although by no means silent – and as in any Tati film, often the funniest comic business unfolds in the background or on the periphery, demanding that close attention be made to the film’s rich visual texture in its panoramic entirety. Still, while there were virtually no lines needing to be adapted from Tati’s original script, Chomet has nonetheless shifted the principal location from Prague to Edinburgh – where The Illusionist was in fact also made, following Chomet’s decision, after presenting Belleville Rendez-Vous at the Edinburgh Film Festival, to set up Django Studios in the city. 

The difference between The Illusionist and the other films by either Tati or Chomet can be measured in its (sometimes oppressively) realist setting, its darkly elegiac tone, and its approach to nostalgia that is more bitter than sweet. Tatischeff is an aging Parisian vaudeville magician in the era of rock and roll, always moving from place to place in pursuit of an audience that is still not jaded by his démodé brand of performance. Both in London, and ultimately in Edinburgh too, he will be upstaged by new band Billy Boy and the Britoons – and he will also have the misfortune to bring his act to an isolated pub off the West Coast of Scotland on the very same day that electricity first arrives, so that both he and a local band of traditional musicians are replaced almost overnight by a new jukebox blaring dance music (no doubt also by the Britoons). The light that we see switched on in the pub for the first time will be echoed in ring composition at the film’s close, as the light to Tatischeff’s Edinburgh rooms is switched off for the last time, marking the end both of his Scottish tour, and of an era. Our illusionist will not so much triumph, Hulot-like, against encroaching modernity as resign himself grimly to his own obsolescence, eventually putting all that he loves behind him and setting off on the road one more time – while his naïve ward Alice will slowly be transformed, in what is one of Tatischeff’s most effective (and least affordable) illusions, from provincial ingenue to elegant lady about town, even as she fails to recognise what she has lost until it is gone. The last gift that Tatischeff will grant Alice is, precisely, her disillusionment, marking both her final coming of age and his own giving in to it. It is an act of betrayal (and self-betrayal) that will leave few eyes dry in the cinema.

Tatischeff and Alice are joined in their tragicomic adventures by a hilariously disgruntled stage rabbit, a perpetually drunken Scotsman, a whole troupe of similarly desperate performers (the alcoholic ventriloquist, the suicidal clown – only the younger acrobats display the levity that matches their calling), and sundry extras – but the real tritagonist here is time itself. Ever behind the times, Tatischeff is repeatedly delayed from his London stage debut by the extended encores of the trendier act on before him; he struggles to operate newfangled car-washing equipment to a clock’s audible tick-tick-ticking; and he fails to be properly woken by his alarm clock in time for a new gig with an advertising firm. Meanwhile Alice, determined to make up for time lost back in her Hebridean home, first meets her future beau in an upmarket Edinburgh store, browsing clocks and watches. Chomet’s melancholic theme here is out with the old and in with the new – a theme reinforced visually by the merger of exquisite ‘old-fashioned’ hand-drawn 2D characters and digitally created 3D props and backgrounds. It looks absolutely beautiful – and while Tatischeff and Alice may both end up disenchanted, Chomet paints in plenty of subtle optical trickery to keep viewers, at least, believing in magic. Wind-blown feathers are mistaken for snow. ‘Little’ Joe, the owner of the Edinburgh hotel for artistes where Tatischeff and Alice take up residence, turns out not to be seated behind the counter, but just very short in stature. A pair of headlights rushing out of the dark at Alice in fact belongs not to an oncoming truck, but to a pair of police motorbikes. As a book’s pages are made to flutter in the breeze, its shadow on the wall assumes the form of a flapping bird. In this world of fleeting phenomena and endless ephemerality, Chomet himself proves to be the ultimate illusionist.

Much as it charts the shifting relationship between an older man and a younger woman, Tati’s scenario was also a love letter to his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, just entering her teens in 1959 even as he was feeling his age. Four decades later, when Chomet approached the Tati estate for permission to use an extract from Jour de Fête in Belleville Rendez-Vous, Sophie mentioned to him her late father’s un-produced script, and suggested an animated adaptation. Four months later, long before The Illusionist had even begun production, Sophie herself would pass away – but the heartfelt letter has at last been delivered, preserving Tati’s and Sophie’s legacy in the memory of its images. Magicians may not exist, but Chomet has brought the dead to life.  

The Illusionist

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Synopsis: Paris, 1959. Tatischeff is an aging vaudeville magician who performs in any venue that will have him, fighting a losing battle against both his irascible stage rabbit and his own outmodedness. He travels to London, where he is upstaged by a rock band. A chance encounter with a drunken Scotsman at a garden party leads to an engagement in a village pub off the west coast of Scotland, on the night when electricity first comes to the island. The young barmaid Alice is enchanted by Tatischeff’s tricks, believing them to be real, and she follows him on to Edinburgh. There they move into Little Joe Hotel, a haunt for clowns, ventriloquists, acrobats and other performers, and Tatischeff secures work at the Royal Music Hall, spending most of his meagre takings on expensive gifts for Alice which she believes he has conjured by magic – an impression which he is only too happy to foster, having found in Alice his perfect audience. 

To supplement his income, Tatischeff takes a series of jobs – a nightshift in a garage, a stint painting billboards for Jenner’s department store, work as a performing shop window dummy – but he is not suited to any of these, and is soon unemployed again. When the same boy band that had seen him ousted from London shows up, he loses his gig at the Music Hall – even as, one by one, his fellow performers at the Little Joe Hotel leave. Meanwhile, Alice has met the young man from the building opposite and is enjoying her first romance. Tatischeff releases his rabbit on a hill overlooking Edinburgh, and departs by train into the night, leaving Alice some money and a note that reads, “Magicians do not exist.” Tatischeff resists the temptation to perform an illusion for the child sitting opposite.    

strap: Sylvain Chomet’s Tati-esque second feature uses magical animation for a disillusioning story about the end of magic (and of an era)

Anton Bitel