What a sad, beautiful, and wonderful film this is! For his first film since the Oscar-nominated “The Triplets of Belleville,” French animator Sylvain Chomet has adapted a screenplay left by the French filmmaker, Jacques Tati (with whose work I will begin familiarizing myself as soon as I can via Netflix), and created a film as whimsical and melancholy as “Belleville.” On the basis of these two films alone, Chomet is a master filmmaker in much the same way Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, the late Satoshi Kon, and the crew over at Pixar are masters. I will be adding both “Belleville” and “Illusionist” to my collection very soon.
“The Illusionist” tells the story of Tatischeff (named after Tati’s daughter, who gave Chomet her father’s screenplay), an aging magician whose act has grown tired for the audiences of the time (the late ’60s, I believe). They are more interested in pop bands than magic tricks, even though Tatischeff performs them effortlessly (except for pulling a rabbit from his hat; the rabbit doesn’t really cooperate on that one, although it does sleep on Tatischeff’s stomach at night). He travels all across Western Europe (France, England, ending up in Scotland) with no real stability until he gets to Edinburgh, but even there he takes odd jobs to pay the bills. Along the way he picks up a fan in a young woman who is enamored by the old man’s “magic.” She moves in with him– however, their relationship is a chaste one –and takes care of the hotel room. Their life goes on as it has until, well, I’d rather not say anymore about the story. All I will say is that the story turns when it should, which is to say, when Tatischeff has accepted that his life’s pursuit is no longer worth pursuing. (Two moments illustrate this with unnerving sadness; think the opening sequence of “Up,” and you’re just about there.)
A bit of a concern was raised by Tati’s grandson, Richard, after the film debuted at Cannes, as Chomet’s adaptation evidently differs greatly from the original script in not only details but tone. The script Tati wrote was evidently deeper, intending to be an autobiographical exploration of an event that forever shook Tati’s family and on which Tati looked back with regret. A letter Richard wrote to Roger Ebert can be read on Ebert’s blog and is a fascinating read, more so after having seen the film.
While Chomet may not have held true to what Tati (who passed away in 1982) might have wanted were he to have made the film himself, “The Illusionist” stands as a wonderful and unforgettable cinematic experience on its own. Chomet’s delicate animation style is perfect for the story’s sad, subtle emotional shadings, and his decision to use minimal dialogue (at least, little dialogue that can be understood), an approach that worked equally well in “Belleville,” is a wonderful tribute to not only his gifts as a storyteller but the filmmaker he to whom he pays homage here. If you’re anything like me, it’s a film you’ll want to experience many times over the years.