Friday, January 21, 2011

Tati Lives!: The Illusionist

While there’s no shortage of animated movies coming our way each year – and many good ones in the mix – simple, hand-drawn animation the way it used to be done by Disney, among others, is something of a lost art. Except nobody has told French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet that, and as a result he’s producing some of today's finest animated work. The Illusionist, Chomet’s follow-up to his wonderful Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003), is a small gem. It is a continuation of his brilliant cinematic vision while also a departure from his previous feature.

What Chomet has done (and who would have imagined this?) is bring beloved French director Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle) back to exquisite life, both in terms of the project itself and as a character in the movie. The Illusionist was originally written in 1956 by Tati and Henri Marquet as a tribute to Tati’s estranged daughter Sophie Tatischeff, but the script was never produced – until now. Changed somewhat – the film’s main location has been moved from Prague to Edinburgh, where Paris-born Chomet now lives – The Illusionist, which is set in the late fifties, is a poignant (platonic) love story between a fading French magician named Tatischeff and Alice, a young Scottish woman he encounters who he eventually ends up living with. Tatischeff is having trouble earning his keep, as his audiences flock to newfangled acts, such as the preening rock and roll Beatles-like group Billy Boy and the Britoons, whom he shares billing with at the outset of the movie. Tatischeff's old-fashioned magic shtick, complete with a rabbit being pulled out of his hat, isn’t cutting it anymore, sending him on a desperate trajectory from Paris to London and, finally, to Edinburgh. There, he and his bad-tempered rabbit settle into a rooming house with Alice. He tries, and usually fails, to bring in enough money for he and Alice to live on. Yet the young girl, who touches him deeply, is also an ingenuous, innocent soul, who believes that Tatischff is actually conjuring up all the presents (a pretty pair of shoes, a beautiful winter coat) he buys her, forcing the magician to find jobs to pay for the gifts. Being cast in the spirit of Tati, those endeavours usually don’t fare well.

Jacques Tati
Tatischeff, of course, is a stand-in for Tati himself. Chomet’s animated version of the French comedian – created by chief animator Laurent Kircher – is spot on, perfectly replicating Tati’s unique gait (half shambling, half balletic) and his perpetually quizzical expressions, as if he’s always missing the joke that everyone else gets. Finely recreated, too, is the way Tati/Tatischeff leaves quiet havoc in his wake, as objects are damaged and things get screwed up, while he's only vaguely aware of what he’s done. (The real Tati pops up, too, on a movie screen showing his classic Mon Oncle, proffering, in a quietly subtle and amusing scene, an opportunity for the two Tatis to play off each other.) Alice, with her big eyes and diffident, kind manner, brings out the best in Taitscheff, giving him, in effect, a reason to keep on going when he might otherwise have given up on life.

The Illusionist, likely because Tati was dealing with familial difficulties with his own daughter, is more bittersweet than any of Tati’s produced movies and a marked deviation from Chomet’s Les Triplettes de Belleville, which was (gently) satirical in tone. Remarkably, The Illusionist is also almost completely dialogue free, as Tatischeff and Alice don’t speak each other’s language. Except for a few words of French and Gaelic that they can interpret, the main characters communicate solely through gestures and expressions, which add a piquant flavour to their story.

Chomet’s stylistic flourishes also bring Edinburgh to gorgeous life. The Scottish capital is depicted as a quiet, friendly town, but one which can offer harsh lessons as well. Cops scare off some kids beating a drunkard, another down-and-out soul begs for scraps. Class divisions pop up, too, as high-end department stores are off-limits to the impoverished likes of Alice. Yet Chomet clearly loves the place and lovingly animates Edinburgh as the city comes to life in the morning and slowly winds down at night. There's sheer poetry in the way he lingers over the shadows of the sun illuminating the city streets or the pelting rain battering Edinburgh’s classic edifices. He’s Terence Malick (The New World) without the hippy-dippy world view.

The detailed portrait of the denizens in (and the goings-on of) Tatischeff and Alice’s rooming house are also arresting. The lonely ventriloquist and his lively doll; the sad clown; the hearty American acrobats – they all interact with Tatischeff and Alice in fascinating ways and create an original, sometimes tragic, community of artists trying to buck the odds by stemming the tide of modernity threatening their livelihoods. One of Chomet’s savvier touches is bringing Billy Boy and the Brittoons to Scotland long after they’d conquered London, as would have been the case prior to prevalent mass-media creating instant hits out of any new kid on the block. Shorn of ten minutes, which I’ve not seen, since its Berlin Film Festival premiere, the 80-minute film does seem a bit jagged and erratic here, as if there was more happening in the rooming house than we now get to see on screen. It’s a small imperfection though, more obvious, perhaps, since the film is otherwise so smoothly and consistently laid out.

Mostly, though The Illusionist is about the lovely relationship between Tatischeff and Alice, and their interactions will break your heart. It’s about two people coming together, who need each other and help each other navigate through an often indifferent, even cruel, world. And while the ending is bleak, and there’s a devastating punch line just before the end credits which explains much about Tiatischeff's adoption of Alice, The Illusionist is still buoyant. It’s raised high by a deep love of movie-making and cinema, as per Tati himself, and a fervent interest in telling a sweet, touching story. The end result is a strikingly memorable and indelible movie: a  treasure in this or any year.

 – Shlomo  Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute.

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