Some kind of magic
This animated fable moistens the tear ducts even as it stirs the senses, writes Donald Clarke
HERE IS AN animated film about being left behind. It’s about the advance of technology. It’s about the savage, carnivorous nature of popular culture. It’s about the realisation that, however we resist, younger generations will see us into the grave and forget we walked the earth.
No film since Goodbye Mr Chips – which bumped off half the juvenile cast in the Great War – has, in its final act, been so ruthless in tweaking the audience’s tear ducts. Heck, if Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to Belleville Rendezvous weren’t a little masterpiece, you’d run a mile to get away from it.
Based on an unproduced script by the untouchable French master Jacques Tati, The Illusionist follows an aging magician as, challenged by the rise of pop music, he tries to scratch a living in the early 1960s. On his travels, Tatischeff (Tati’s real name) meets a young girl. Though careful never to make advances, he finds himself increasingly in her thrall. Life being what is, however, the relationship brings only the shallowest, most fragile class of happiness.
The combination of Chomet and Tati could well have delivered sufficient concentrated Gallic flavours to repel even the most fervent Francophile. Belleville Rendezvous was, among other things, a variation on national themes laid down in Tati pictures such as Jour de Fête and Mr Hulot’s Holiday. Bringing Chomet together with one of Tati’s scripts sounds a little like diluting Burgundy with Armagnac. Oh là là! Ma tête!
It was, thus, an inspired decision to set The Illusionist largely in Edinburgh. Events begin with the magician making his way from France to Scotland for a series of engagements. Eventually he finds himself in the wilds (near Oban, where the lovely whisky comes from) and providing entertainment for the unveiling of a remote pub’s new electrical supply. A local girl falls for him and, the following day, stows away in the van that takes him to the ferry. Perhaps unwisely, he agrees to bring her to Edinburgh.
It is no exaggeration to say that The Illusionist does for the Scottish capital what Don’t Look Now did for Venice or Manhattan did for New York. As with those films, the version of the city is very much a romantic one – warm yellow lights punctuate the grey lanes, chip shops breathe welcoming steam, the castle finds it way into every second vista. But such is the passion and such the precision that you could never accuse the film of being a moving picture postcard. You sense the animators reaching for the Old Town and attempting to hug it in their inky embrace.
Largely wordless, like Tati’s own films, the picture is rather less busy than Belleville Rendezvous, but considerably more focused in its storytelling. Whereas that otherwise superb film lost control during its trip to the US, The Illusionist relates its simple tale in gratifyingly economic fashion. The occasional diversions are as delightful as they are disciplined: adventures with Tatischeff’s angry rabbit; interactions with other, largely miserable entertainers in the heroes’ boarding house.
Though the visuals are never less than overpowering, the meticulousness of the characterisation is so impressive that the viewer’s concern always remains the queasy relationship between the soft-hearted magician and his easily distracted young friend. Inevitably, set loose in the big (well, biggish) city, the fickle youth begins to drift towards brighter lights and younger men.
Oh, dear. Did we mention the film was about time, decay and being left behind? True, enough. However, by showcasing the capacities of traditional 2D animation and demonstrating that lost works need not remain lost,
The Illusionist also has some happy news about the enduring power of old things. Indeed, for some younger viewers, raised on Pixar, Chomet’s approach will seem so ancient that it becomes new again.
An unqualified delight.
Edinburgh animated in The Illusionist