Tati as daddy

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

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.

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