Today: February 21, 2024

Illusionist, The (French)

If ever a film deserved the term ‘whimsical’ it’s
French animator Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to the eye-wateringly,
teeth-grindingly, irritatingly whimsical
Belleville
Rendez-Vous
. Not to be confused with the tricksy Ed Norton period
thriller of the same name, The Illusionist is a film so
steeped in whimsy it might inspire you to give amateur trepanning a go.

Set in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1950s, The
Illusionist
is a bittersweet (but mostly
sweet) love-letter not only to the dying world of music hall but to the city of
Edinburgh. Working from an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, Chomet’s lovingly
hand-drawn
, old-school animation follows the titular Illusionist,
a typically Tati-esque figure, an aging stage magician who finds his audiences
dwindling
as rock’n’roll takes the world by storm.

Packing his decidedly belligerent scene-stealing
rabbit
into his hat, he leaves Paris and heads out on the
road, touring the far-flung corners of ’50s Scotland where he
finds a surrogate daughter in a naive young
woman who believes his conjuring tricks to be real
magic. Together they travel to Edinburgh where he finds an
agent, begins an extended engagement in a small theatre and they find lodgings
in an eccentric, dilapidated hotel peopled by other variety
show rejects
; a drunken ventriloquist, a troupe of acrobats, a
suicidal clown. But with audiences starting to dry up, the pair find themselves
drifting apart as she’s increasingly seduced by the bright
lights of the city…

Like much of Tati’s work and Chomet’s earlier Belleville
Rendez-Vous
, The Illusionist is a ‘silent’
film in so much as it’s virtually dialogue-free (there’s the odd
grunt and mutter), relying on Chomet’s ravishing visuals to
tell it’s slight but affecting tale. While its theme of
entertainers out of step with their age and rendered obsolete by
changing audience tastes is particularly poignant (it is after all a 2D
hand-drawn film in a world of 3D CGI cartoons) and its nostalgia for a simpler,
bygone age understandable, The Illusionist never quite
drowns in its own sentimentality, the air of melancholy that
suffuses the film constantly undercut by the script’s droll,
slow-burn humour.

Its depiction of Scotland may at times be as shortbread
tin
realistic as Powell & Pressburger’s “I Know Where I’m Going!” with
steam trains chugging past mirror-like lakes, parties to celebrate the coming
of electricity (and, it’s implied civilisation) to the Western Isles and
comedy, drunken Scotsmen at every turn but Edinburgh has never been so lovingly or accurately
rendered
onscreen, Chomet perfectly capturing the brooding look
of the city, its ever-changing light, its magical atmosphere, in
ways that conventional, live-action filmmaking never could. The central
relationship however, is very French. An older man, a
younger woman, the Illusionist and his companion’s relationship is part chaste
May-to-December romance, part surrogate father/daughter. Only the charm and innocence of
Chomet’s vision prevents your mind from veering into icky territory.

If, in the end, the film is never quite as satisfying or as
affecting as you feel it should be, blame Tati. The man was,
after all, a mime artist so is it really a huge surprise if his script is a
little light on characterisation?
While it’s not going to set the arthouse world alight the way Bellville
Rendez-Vous
did a few years back, The Illusionist is a
charming, swooningly romantic ode to the demise of variety
entertainment and a defiant, refreshingly retro,
visually sumptuous feast for the eyes.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website: thekolsocial.com

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