If Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist isn’t a masterpiece, it will do nicely till one comes along, but it should be understood that it’s a masterpiece of the melancholy. Do not think for a moment that because it’s animated—or more like a watercolor come to life—it’s either a comedy (though there are comedic things in it) or that it’s in any way aimed at children. This is a film—set in 1959—about the passing of an era and about the people affected by that passing. It could not be anything other than melancholy. Its very raison d’etre lies in that fact.
The film is based on an unproduced screenplay by legendary French comic Jacques Tati and adapted by Sylvain Chomet. This is only fitting, since Chomet proved himself a pupil and admirer of Tati in both his animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville (2003), and in his live-action “Tour Eiffel” segment of Paris, Je T’aime (2006). He may even qualify as the logical successor to Tati, though that remains to be seen. Like Tati, he is a visual artist, not a verbal one—and as with Tati, this never feels like an affectation. There is a small amount of dialogue in The Illusionist, but it’s inessential, which is a good thing, since what little we hear is in French or an even less comprehensible Scots dialect.
The Tati connection has, it should be noted, been the source of some misconception among the film’s very few detractors, who mostly complain that Tati would have made something else out of the material. That may very well be true, but it needs to be understood from the outset that the film is an homage to Tati—using his own material to honor him—and is in no way meant to be a Monsieur Hulot film. If anything, the character of the title is meant to be Tati himelf, and in fact is named Tatischeff, which was Tati’s real name. Only one sequence in the film—where Tatischeff takes a job at a garage—can be said to operate on something like the Hulot principle of causing unwitting (and uncomprehended) chaos. And, in case there is any lingering doubt, Chomet makes it clear in another scene in which Tatischeff hides in an Ediburgh movie theater that is showing Mon Oncle (1958), which also serves to remind us that Tatischeff lacks Hulot’s hat and pipe.
What we have instead is the story of a stage magician—possibly not a very good one (and with an ill-tempered rabbit)—faced with the prospect of an audience that no longer exists, living in a world that no longer has a place for him or indeed for any of the simpler entertainments of his day. (There’s a bit of Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) and his A King in New York (1957) in here, too). Our magician sets out for London in hopes of a warmer reception, but things are even worse there—except that he gets an offer from an exceedingly drunk and unintelligible Scotsman to travel north and perform there.
Appearing at first in a small town, things do seem to go better, especially with the young serving girl, Alice, who is entranced by Tatischeff’s magic and touched by his kindness to her. But there is a hint of trouble to come when his act is followed by a jukebox being hauled out to play the pop tunes of the day. Plus, there’s an obvious limit to how long you can keep going with the same tricks in a town with a limited audience, so—now accompanied by Alice—he makes his way to Edinburgh to try his luck at the dying music hall there. They make their home in a boarding house specifically geared to—and populated by—other music hall artistes, none of whom are doing any better, as illustrated by an alcoholic ventriloquist and a suicidal clown.
Both the downward spiral—and the fact that Alice will ultimately gravitate toward her own age group (again, there’s the specter of Chaplin)—are inevitable, but it makes neither arc any less moving. The film’s final scenes—especially a note written by Tatischeff—are among the most genuinely heartbreaking and true you’re likely to see. (Though there is one final gag if you stay till the end of the credits.) Do not miss this beautiful film. Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.