The Illusionist

[National Review Online; Feb 10, 2011]

The Illusionist has been nominated for Best Animated Feature (I mean the new animated film, of course, not the 2006 live-action movie by the same title), and no one who has seen it was surprised. It is simply a beautiful motion picture. Our protagonist, slipping past middle age, watches mountains and rivers flow past his train window; rain is drizzling, summer is fading into fall, and on the soundtrack someone is wandering around the piano keys in a Gallic sort of way. Sigh. What could be more delicately poignant, or more lovely?

The director, Sylvain Chomet, won fame for his 2008 film, The Triplets of Belleville, but fans will find a different tone here—less oddity and more beauty, along with an enduring, thought-provoking theme. The script was written in the 1950’s by the French director Jacques Tati (d. 1982), but was not produced till now. Tati, beloved by the French and by cinephiles everywhere, made only 6 movies in his career, and is best known for the ones in which he stars as Monsieur Hulot. This is an oblivious, oversized oaf who leaves a trail of destruction wherever he goes. He can be likened to Britain’s Mr. Bean, but a better analogy would be to Buster Keaton (and in fact there is in Illusionist an episode that seems a tip of the hat to Keaton’s The Blacksmith). Tati’s films are nearly silent, and The Illusionist follows suit.

The film opens, cleverly enough, with an image of a theater stage, the curtains closed over the movie screen. A voice announces, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the film The Illusionist!” The curtains begin to open, then jerk to a halt; after a couple more tries, the management sends out an entertainer to keep us diverted. It is an old-fashioned stage magician, very tall, wielding flowers, umbrella, top hat, and a plump, irritable rabbit, quick with sleight-of-hand but not entirely graceful. (In build and manner, it is Hulot; his poster reads “Tatischeff,” Tati’s original name.) We follow the magician from theater to theater, town to town, then across the Channel to London, where a lively, inebriated Scotsman invites him to perform at his pub in the highlands. (Stay tuned after the credits for a last glimpse of this character.) A young girl who works in the village hotel there is awed by Tatischeff’s effects, and innocently believes that he has real magical powers. When he leaves for his next booking, in Edinburgh, she follows as a stowaway.

This is where a Hulot-like twist occurs: instead of explaining himself to Alice and sending her home, he obligingly goes along with the pretense. Alice thinks that he has magically produced a new pair of shoes for her, but now that she is in the big city, she sees that grown women wear high heels. She wants a stylish coat and a pretty dress too; she is growing up, turning into a beautiful young woman. One day she notices the handsome young man who lives across the street. Thus winter turns into spring.

But for Tatischeff things are on the decline. Variety show audiences keep getting smaller and smaller. A ventriloquist and a clown who share their hotel are likewise in bad straits. Tatischeff secretly takes on extra jobs in order to keep up the pretense and continue giving Alice all the things she admires. He gets into various scrapes, and his goofs and disasters are funny, but, since they are the humiliations of a man whose time has passed, there’s an undertone of sadness. The story reaches an unforeseen, yet inevitable, ending.

Much can be said (and has been said) about the beauty of this movie. Images and music are perfectly married. Weather effects come across almost tangibly. A particularly impressive sequence comes when Tatischeff releases his rabbit on a hill outside of town. I worried momentarily about whether this tame rabbit would fare well in the wild, but the “camera pulls up” (of course, this is animation) to reveal the whole hilltop, and it is teeming with rabbits. So, even though some things draw to an end, life itself is ever new, bounding with energy, reproducing like rabbits. The camera continues to retreat upward then wheels in a circle over the town. It’s a beautiful, emotionally triumphant shot.

The Illusionist has received so much praise that I tried to come up with criticisms, or at least ways that it might have hypothetically been even better. One missing piece, I think, is that we don’t feel that Tatischeff loves the girl. His primary emotion seems to be bafflement; he’s gotten himself into a fix and can’t figure a way out. This is a Hulot-like predicament, and retains in the main character Hulot’s habitual pose of detached observation and befuddlement. But this very detachment, this lack of a strong emotional link to the girl, means that his loss does not have as much impact as it might have.

Secondly—and this is true of many good comedies—the film is episodic, just one thing after another. Tatischeff smears oil on a car he was supposed to wash, he hides behind a coat rack which begins to roll away, he mistakenly thinks Alice has put his rabbit into a stew. There are a lot of amusing moments, but they play an essential role in the plot. They don’t build on each other, and could have occurred in almost any order. What we remember afterward is a slender and tenderly sad story, and an assortment of humorous moments; the two are not organically linked.

Someone searching for criticisms might note that the humor is somewhat mild, and less boisterous than American fare. This is a matter of taste, of course, and not necessarily a drawback; in this regard The Illusionist resembles the Hulot movies, which are amusing rather than rolling-on-the-floor hilarious. A comparison can be made between a scene here and its parallel in the Keaton movie. Tatischeff has taken a night job at a garage, and is given the keys to a white Cadillac by a wealthy Texan. He is supposed to wash the car, but he squirts it with oil, smears the oil into the paint, and then rolls the car out into the rain. In the morning, the oil is gone.

Now take a look about 12 minutes into The Blacksmith, as Keaton progressively destroys a pristine white Rolls Royce. It’s a lot more funny, and also more daring and outlandish; it’s a hair-raising scene. By comparison, the scene in the Illusionist has less pizzazz. Of course, The Blacksmith is not poignant or tender (though Chaplin’s The Kid, maybe, achieved both).  To each his own.

Last, I think that if a script doctor had had a crack at this movie early on, he might have said, “You’re focusing on the wrong character. This is a movie about Alice. This is a coming-of-age movie.” It’s interesting to picture the story told that way, with Alice’s heedlessness, despite her innocence, causing pain for Tatischeff—pain she would not see, being so caught up in the joy of youth and first love. That would have been a good movie, too, and possibly more centered and dynamic. Though it’s interesting to imagine ways this movie could have been different, it’s lovely just as it is.

There’s a mystery about The Illusionist. The script was given to Chomet by Sophie Tatischeff, the director’s daughter, who died of cancer in 2001. The theory is that the script was a love letter from Tati to his daughter, whom he missed due to travel and the other demands of his career. (Those sharp of eye will notice a small photo Tatischeff tucks into the corner of his mirror as he travels, and sometimes studies.)

However, another daughter claims that the script means to address her. Helga Schiel was conceived out of wedlock and never recognized by her father. She lives now in northeastern England, which may supply a reason for the story being set in Edinburgh. Chomet says that the film is about Sophie, but the website for Pathe Pictures (the distributor in France) says that it refers to Helga. This will have to remain a mystery, which is fitting. A true magician never explains his illusions.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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