There have been some misunderstandings about The Illusionist. Don’t confuse this animated Oscar nominee with the Edward Norton/Paul Giamatti period piece of the same name from a few years ago, although both films are about believing in magic. And it isn’t wholly accurate to call this a new offering from the late French filmmaker Jacques Tati, whose Monsieur Hulot films were a precursor to “Mr. Bean,” though it is based on a screenplay he wrote in 1956.
The relationship between the titular magician and the chambermaid he befriends is the emotional center of The Illusionist. The French comedy director Jacques Tati, who died in 1982, wrote an original version of the script and intended to star in the film with his own daughter.
This Illusionist has all the elements of a Tati movie: the nearly wordless austerity, the wistful piquancy, the affectionate and meticulous attention to the details of a landscape that overwhelms the characters that populate it. The titular and Tati-esque protagonist is a traveling magician of late middle age, who, in spite of his dignity, seems increasingly unfit for service to the alienating modern world—here, the late 1950s.
When his old-fashioned act flops in Paris and then in London, he makes for the Scottish highlands. There he finds favor with a moth-eaten pub crowd and a starstruck teenaged chambermaid in particular. He indulges her wonderment and she in turn travels with him to Edinburgh, where they share a room in a hotel full of other itinerant passé performers (acrobats, a ventriloquist, a suicidal clown).
It is a romantic relationship, in that its chastity is romanticized, its de facto paternalism uncriticized. (Tati reportedly intended the film to star himself and his own daughter.) And the relationship is poignant, in that we know it’s only a matter of time until the girl outgrows both the man and what he stands for. The rest is an array of witty, inspired bits of business, tastefully set among glowing and gorgeous watercolor backgrounds. You’d think that a movie full of clowning and miming—and a cartoon no less—would be unable to resist slouching into emotional overstatement.
The Illusionist was adapted and directed by animator Sylvain Chomet, who also made The Triplets of Belleville. Triplets is a much more manic picture, but it showed that Chomet had the audacity to take up a dead old master’s unproduced project. Presumably there are Tati purists who consider this some kind of grave-robbing violation. But Chomet seems about as right for the challenge as a filmmaker can be.
Chomet’s quiet pantomimic style, with its impassivity of facial expression and scarcity of closeups, is purifying instead of cloying. The Illusionist might well bore those moviegoers with a taste for the noisier and less delicate tendencies of contemporary animated Hollywood films. But to those who’d rather not keep sifting through the Shrekage, it may feel like a breath of fresh air.