Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The dis-illusionist

The Illusionist faces the end of illusion.
Like a lot of grown-ups, I felt Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville was the best cartoon I'd seen in years (if you haven't seen it, do), and briefly Choment was the "it" boy of high-brow animation. Since then, however, his career has been plagued by controversy - there were charges of plagiarism from a former colleague; Hollywood threw a big project his way (The Tale of Despereaux) but then replaced him; the funding for another movie fell through; and even The Illusionist (above), released seven years after Triplets, has arrived trailing a kerfuffle over its dedication to one of Tati's daughters (it's a long story). Given these travails, perhaps it's surprising that The Illusionist has arrived at all, and I advise you to see it while you can; it's perhaps not in the same edgy, original league as Triplets, but it's nevertheless one of the best movies of the year.

Drawn from a screenplay by Jacques Tati, The Illusionist finds Chomet in a nostalgic mood; he clearly identifies with the silent, subversive wit of the great filmmaker, and not only makes his star, a stage magician facing declining fortunes, a dead ringer for Tati but bequeaths to him the Frenchman's birth name as well ("Tatischeff").  The comedian even makes an appearance on a movie screen halfway through the picture (in a clip from Mon Oncle, I think).  Of course beneath the frisky grotesquerie of Triplets many of the same themes resonated: in Belleville, real joy was only found among loyal old ladies who loved dogs, frog legs and jazz.  It seems that to Chomet, modern pleasures are by way of contrast false and destructive, and driven by egoistic delusion - he ridicules the rock band ("Billy Boy and the Britoons") that pushes poor Tatischeff off-stage as phony poofters, for instance, and their screaming teen-age fans are portrayed as deluded children (Tati, who relentlessly parodied modernism in movies like Playtime, would no doubt have agreed).  Still, the times (the 50's) they were a'changin', and charming as his act may be, the Illusionist finds himself playing to little old ladies at deserted matinees (above), or to the occasional drunk (if hearty) Scotsman - who, in the best Chomet manner, at least knows how to have a good time.

When invited up to a gig at that pickled Scotsman's pub, Tatischeff picks up another admirer - Alice, a simple chambermaid who seems to believe she has passed through the looking glass, and that the magician's tricks are actual magic.  She trails after him as he moves on to another date in Edinburgh (below), and the film develops into a quaint, nearly-silent May-December romance - only without the romance (Tatischeff sleeps on the couch in his forlorn little room, while Alice gets the bed).

The film's vision of Edinburgh - a fantasy that's also an accurate geography.
What action remains in the movie is all indirectly stated: Tatischeff takes up odd jobs to sustain Alice's illusions, and keep his innocently selfish new ward in style - while she (inevitably) finds a different kind of magic in the handsome guy next door (and slowly leaves her protector behind).  I have to admit this poignant arc is never actually as pointed as Tati himself might have made it - because I'm not sure the unspoken courtliness that Chomet admires in his idol is truly his own forte.  The film is instead liveliest in the side gallery of grotesques who fill out Tatischeff's vaudeville programs - the clown who's so sad he's suicidal, the ventriloquist who gets drunk with his dummy - even the testy rabbit that, once out of the hat, always bites the hand that feeds it.  These characters have the eccentric, individual edge the crew from Triplets had, and we come to care for them far more than we do for sweet, blank Alice.  Indeed, the most devastating moment in the movie comes when Tatischeff closes down his act and lets that recalcitrant rabbit go free in the hills above town.  Suddenly he's alone, just like any other bunny; the dream is over.

One dream, however, remains - Chomet's wistful dedication to hand-drawn animation.  The evocative watercolors that make up the backgrounds of The Illusionist (with okay, the occasional digital flourish) supply the haunting atmosphere (below) that the foreground story sometimes lacks.  And I must recommend the film to anyone who loves Edinburgh as I do; Chomet captures Scotland's answer to Florence (where he actually made much of this movie) with a hand so loving, and so accurate, that I almost went and bought a plane ticket as soon as I left the theatre. Those familiar with that wonderful town will recognize many of its locations (even down to the street addresses on the buildings); at last this great location has found its cinematic apotheosis (as London and Paris have so many times before).  Something about Edinburgh's gaunt architectural romance I'm sure spoke to Chomet, just as Tati's courtliness did.  Perhaps the greatest praise one could give him is to acknowledge that he has brought both these profound sensibilities together onscreen.

Not just a city, but a sensibility - Edinburgh in The Illusionist.

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