Tati as daddy
IThe Illusionist, hand-drawn animated feature, rated PG, Regal DeVargas, 4 chiles
and eight other films out of the category’s three-slot nomination race — The Illusionist is the latest offering from French director Sylvain Chomet, whose breathtaking 2003 animated film, The Triplets of Belleville, was nominated for two Oscars of its own (best animated feature and best original song).
Based on an adaptation of a never-produced, 50-plus-year-old script by iconic French actordirector-screenwriter Jacques Tati ( Mon Oncle, Jour de Fête, M. Hulot’s Holiday), The Illusionist is a fitting tribute to a legendary filmmaker who is no longer with us (Tati died in 1982 at the age of 75). And at the hands of lead illustrator Laurent Kircher and the rest of his team, it is a masterful contribution to the history of traditionally drawn animation.
Centered around a young Scottish girl named Alice who finds a friend in Tatischeff, a struggling Parisian magician plying his dusty prestidigitation skills in late-’50s Europe, the film spends as much time poking at the funny bone as it does tugging at the heartstrings.
When the presumably single and childless Tatischeff finally comes to terms with the fact that his gigs have dried up in the clubs and performance halls of Paris, London, and Edinburgh, he accepts a job presenting his sleight of hand at a beer-soaked pub in Scotland’s Western Isles, a place where Nominated for an Oscar this year for best animated film — and pushing Hollywood blockbusters Despicable Me, Megamind, Tangled, Shrek Forever After,
electricity is a fancy new attraction and feelings of isolation are as common as the region’s cold and wind-driven autumn rain.
It is at this pub that Tatischeff befriends Alice, a melancholy matchgirl type who believes Tatischeff’s magic is real. As he bestows the occasional gift upon her (a coin, a paper flower, a new pair of shoes), she becomes his closest ally. When Tatischeff heads back to Edinburgh, Alice runs away from her village and follows him there. Together, in perfectly innocent father-daughter fashion, they search for happiness and meaning at a boardinghouse occupied by more fading stars — a lonely ventriloquist, a suicidal alcoholic clown — who are lost in the expanding shadow of a new craze called rock ’n’ roll.
The Edinburgh and London of the ’50s are rendered with a keen eye for both grand and intimate details. Broad, drifting, panning overhead landscape shots mingle with tight, fluid insert shots of newspaper headlines and signs that either hint at the story’s direction or provide the occasional comedic uplift. Each frame is staggeringly deliberate in its lighting, composition, and color palette — a cinematic trait that Tati and Chomet share.
There is a natural sweetness to Tati’s story, which Chomet built upon with his own character additions and location changes (Prague was the original setting for most of the film; Chomet decided on Scotland after a stay there), but there is also a bittersweet, Chaplinesque tone to The Illusionist. The Tatischeff character is certainly drawn to resemble Tati (a gentle giant known for being painstakingly conscious of his own on-screen movements): a beanpole sporting awkwardly dangling floodwater pants and a hint of a pear-shaped midsection.
A minimalist and relentlessly cheerful score composed by Chomet himself paired with awe-inspiring animation (a scene with integrated live-action footage from Mon Oncle surpasses the genius of the Hello Dolly! sequence in WALL•E) are reasons enough to stampede to this instant classic, but reported controversies surrounding the film render it all the more intriguing.
According to an August 2010 article in The Irish Independent by Paul Whitington, “Tati was inspired to write the story in an attempt to reconcile with his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, whom he had abandoned when she was a baby. And although she’s still alive and may in fact be his only direct living relative, she is nowhere mentioned in the dedications.” (Schiel was the product of an extramarital affair.)
Accusations have flown that Chomet altered the story and omitted Schiel’s name from the film’s dedication to whitewash the truth about Tati’s affair and resulting illegitimate child. To muddy things further, Chomet has gone on record to say he believes Tati wrote the script as an apology to his other daughter, Sophie. It may be that some people close to Tati suffered during the life span of his creative output. Perhaps some of them still do.