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This animated feature from Sylvain Chomet, the director of THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, is an unsettling experience. To understand why I say this there is some background that must be known. It is based on an unfilmed script from famed comedian Jacques Tati animated in the French icon’s style. When I think of Tati, I think of the charming Mr. Hulot, a hapless Buster Keaton-like everyman. I think of sly humor in a light comedy. The sly humor is there, but there is nothing light about it.
Known to us only as The Illusionist (Jean-Claude Donda, THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE), the main character is a vaudeville magician trying to continue performing his art well into the 1960s. Rock ‘n roll has replaced his kind of entertainment in the minds of the people. He gets a gig at a bar in a way off village where he meets the young maid Alice (Eilidh Rankin), who is captivated with his magic. He sees that the poor girl’s shoes are much worn, so he kindly buys her a new pair. When he leaves, she follows him back to Edinburgh. So what is this man supposed to do with this girl?
Like Tati’s films, THE ILLUSIONIST is told with little to no dialogue and filmed in wide shots. These elements only enhance the uncertainty between the Illusionist and Alice. Is their relationship purely innocent? What does she want from him? What does he want from her? Why does he so willingly take in this young woman and buy her new fancy clothes and shoes? Only until the final image of the film do we begin to get the fuller picture.
The style keeps us at an arm’s length from the characters. And yet it only adds to the harsh impact of the somber tale. Chomet’s animation is elegant underling the beauty of The Illusionist’s act. The backgrounds are a gorgeous postcard to Edinburgh and its culture. But the color palette is never bright. I even felt the chill in the air. Even the humor has a darker edge to it than other Tati films. When the Illusionist comes home for dinner and she the cook book open to rabbit stew, he starts looking around for his white furry assistant.
For the career of The Illusionist times are bad. Dwindling audiences turn into cancelled shows then into sparse gigs in the sticks and then into performances that test his dignity. With shows less and less, he has to take a job at a garage at night. In classic Tati fashion, the Illusionist turns one mistake into a series of mishaps that leave him jobless. Knowing Tati penned this script so close to the end of his life, one gets the disturbing sense of his bitterness toward a world that had forgotten him and his style of art. The rock ‘n rollers are made out like androgynous twits. The film only gets bleaker as it goes along. There is no bright spot when the thing you dedicated your life to is dead.
The Illusionist gave everything to his profession and it just ate him up and spit him out. This is mirrored in the developing relationship between the older man and the younger girl. The generational gap can’t be bridged. The ending is merciless in its depiction of a crumbling era, as well as a crumbling life. The Illusionist leaves a note for Alice at the end that is devastating. For him there are no more illusions.