Some kind of magic

This an­i­mated fa­ble moist­ens the tear ducts even as it stirs the senses, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

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.

irish­times.com/cul­ture

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

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