The greatest joy to be found for me in writing reviews comes in those rare moments when some unheralded film emerges as a masterpiece and a reminder of why the cinematic form is more dear to me than any other. The idea that my writing might in some small way help reveal the film to those who might otherwise have missed it and perhaps allow them to share in or discover my adoration of cinema is a thrilling and gratifying one. Being able to review such a film, especially for such a community-centric site as Flixist, therefore feels like something of an early Christmas present.
The Illusionist, adapted by Sylvain Chomet in the form of hand-drawn animation from an hitherto unproduced screenplay by legendary French comic directed Jacques Tati, is an astonishing cinematic achievement that, in this season of goodwill and sharing, offers a heartfelt reminder to its audience to appreciate all that makes our lives special before they be lost in time.
Reportedly written as an apology to his daugher Sophie for not being the father she needed growing up, Tati’s script is as steeped in love as the inevitability of its eventual loss. The stage illusionist Tatischeff (Tati’s original surname – the character is modelled on him) is a man perpetually on the run from the encroachment of modernity on his antiquated act. With Beatles parody band Billy Boy & The Britoons thrilling young audiences in the way his haughty gimmicks no longer can, he heads across the Channel to find work. In a tiny, rain-sodden Scottish outpost, he meets the young cleaning girl Alice who, enchanted by his tricks and kindness, decides to follow him in search of more bountiful employment in Edinburgh. As life in the big city sees him marginalised into ever-more degrading jobs, Alice becomes entranced by its excitement and glamour. The ticking clocks that for Tatischeff symbolise his inescapable redundancy and betrayal by the new world, signify for Alice her growth into a woman (one of her most vital scenes takes place in a watch shop) and part of a young generation beginning to discover its own culture and sense of self.
Though it would be easy for the film to pass judgment on one character over the other, they are presented as different sides of the same coin. Tatischeff may be an immovable relic of a fading time, but maintains his generosity and dignity to the very end. Alice is bewildered by the bright lights and possibilities of her new surroundings, but it would take the most unforgiving heart to see her newfound love for independence as selfishness rather than growing up. If her greatest folly is an innocent’s blindness to life’s harsh truths behind the dazzling exterior, Tatischeff’s belief that a young woman could live forever in his world is his. Yet as they gradually move apart, the two characters’ affection for one another is never in doubt, alluded to through the small acts of kindness they perform for each other without any wish for reciprocation.
The film’s art reflects the same theme of transitions over time. The clear symbolism of the various forms of transport on show, from horse-drawn carts and rickety jalopies to shiny new trains (similarly evocative as Miyazaki’s stunning train journey in Spirited Away), is rendered in gorgeous hand-drawn animation, textured with details that add layers to the story and its themes and take multiple viewings to fully appreciate. From the simple, muted hues of an old seaside town to the hardy beauty of the Highlands hills and neon-glow of a city coming alive at night, every location has its own colour scheme and style that captures as much a sense of period as place. The design of the characters reflects their personalities and perspectives, from Tatischeff’s rigid posture and slightly ill-fitting and old-fashioned clothes to the uncomplicated lines of Alice’s warmly affectionate, wide-eyed face.
Such precisely crafted images are of course put in motion by computers, which allow for a fluidity to the animation that keeps even its old-fashioned dedication to classic Disney-esque drawing feeling entirely contemporary and able to pull off some magnificent feats such as a sweeping fly-over of the city, which would not otherwise have been possible. As in that visual blend of old and new, Chomet’s film appreciates the substance and beauty of the old world as complementary to the speed and progress of the new, preventing it from being read as a simple condemnation of nostalgic delusion. Alice’s world, little though she is aware of it, has just as many illusions as Tatischeff’s.
Anyone who believes that animation is only for children will find themselves blindsided by Chomet’s film. In keeping with long-held Tati tradition, dialogue is entirely absent. The characters converse in mumbles and grumbles, telling the story through the expressive animation and score (also by Chomet) instead of words. The pace is deliberate and while the film has no shortage of humour, it comprises mostly of small visual gags that go for affectionate chuckles rather than big laughs, operating as secondary to the drama. It may make you smile, but this is no happy-go-lucky comedy of the Disney ilk despite the artistic resemblance.
If not everyone will be able to adapt to the film’s lack of urgency and reliance on communicating with its audience through sentiment rather than imprecise words, its conclusion is no less challenging. There is only one way the story could end without betraying everything that has gone before it and while for once there will be plenty of people praying for Chomet to sacrifice artistic integrity for a comforting lie, no such punches are pulled. As Tatischeff’s hope drains away and his increasing irrelevance becomes clear to him, the light tone that Tati was known for finally makes its inevitable transition into heart-breaking melancholy. I have never cried in a film before and never been closer than on either of my two viewings when Alice reads the short farewell note that Tatischeff leaves behind, the regret now tinted with just a hint of bitterness. Great cinema is both a communal experience with your fellow viewers and one deeply personal to each individual. Chomet sensibly leaves it up to you to discover your reaction to those final words, as much as you will want to share your interpretation with those around you. It’s the reason I love writing about those moments almost as much as I love discovering them. The Illusionist will break your heart but enrich your soul.