Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Illusionist

Guest review by Liz Smith.

The Illusionist is an animated film concerning an aging magician trying to continue his line of work as the 1960’s start to blossom and leave him behind, a dusty relic of pre-television and rock band days.

The story is taken from an unproduced Jaques Tati script and the animators have modeled the magician, M. Tatischeff, rather straightforwardly on Tati himself, Tatischeff being Tati's original surname. Tati’s physicality was his signature in his own films when he played a character called M. Hulot in Mon Oncle, and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday among others. Tati was a tall man who gave his Hulot persona pants that were a touch too short and a strange, forward-tilting gait that lent a crazy momentum to his walk. He often seemed like he was trying to keep balance on a listing ship though he was standing on terra firma.

Tatischeff lists about, waiting in the wings of shabby music halls for more popular acts to end, stuffing his irascible rabbit back into its magic hat. When he is fired from his steady gig in France, he travels to a small island in Scotland where his act is well received. While there he is befriended by a young girl who is enchanted by the magician’s ability to materialize coins from thin air.

His gig done, he heads back to the mainland. On the ferry ride he finds the girl from the island has made herself his companion and he does not rebuff her. He secures a gig in a music hall in Edinburgh and they room in a shabby hotel full of other dated acts including 3 very energetic acrobats, a genteel ventriloquist and a depressed clown.

The illustrations that make up the backgrounds and interiors of the movie are stunning works of art, take-your-breath-away watercolors in motion.

Many standard cinematic methods are employed; a view of the city as if photographed from a crane, wide panning shots that sweep across landscapes and give you a sense of scale.

The people are rendered in the exaggerated style I loved in the director’s previous animated film, The Triplets of Belleville, moving caricatures, often ugly but never uninteresting.

From The Triplets of Belleville
While the movie feels so strongly its Tati origins, (the magician even briefly happens into a movie house showing a Tati movie at one point, a touching nod to the creator) I found the tone decidedly un-Tati-like. In Mr. Hulot’s Holiday Tati plays a clueless nice guy who inadvertently creates small havoc around him in a seaside resort. People who crave order are offended by him, free spirits and children are delighted by him. In Mon Oncle he is the favorite uncle of a small boy being brought up in an ultra modern, antiseptic house with all the latest electronic amenities but no warmth or comfort. Hulot is a welcome bit of chaos in his nephew’s ordered world. And at the same time, Tati is gently poking fun at the changing world around him.

In The Illusionist, the world is changing around Tatischeff, but this doesn’t present him with a chance to make mischief. It depresses him that no-one wants to see his act anymore, and the people who do show are not impressed. For this magician, the changing times force him to find work so he can continue to produce coins out of thin air for the little girl who is growing into a young woman who wants things like dresses and shoes.

There are moments of slapstick, many brought on by the aforementioned rabbit, and in one scene he attempts to wash a car, a job for which he is wholly unqualified, while he moonlights in a garage. But these scenes lack the humor, the joy, the childish mischief of a Tati film. The overall feeling is instead one of beautiful, poignant, melancholy.

I don’t think anyone in the packed theater was prepared for that. When the movie ended, an older gentleman behind us exclaimed “That was depressing! Makes me wanna go home and take poison!” While I was left with a less anguished response, I did need some time to compose myself before emerging into sunlight. And I’m glad we stayed to the end of the credits because there was a tiny little joke there which helped lighten our moods.


Mom said...

What a beautifull and touching review of what sounds like a beautiful and touching animated film. I want to see it, and maybe, since you prepare me for the melancholy, I will enjoy it for what it is and not be disappointed that it is not lighter and funnier.

Dad said...

You're right: the artrwork is spectacular. Too bad the humor has been lost along with Tati.

Liz (made in lowell) said...

I think you will like it mom!

Dad, There is still humor, but the overall tone of the movie is melancholic. It's very poignant about a lost time. Perhaps it is also about the loss of Tati?

Laurie Smith Murphy said...

I'd love to see this film just for the cinematography...it looks stunning and you make it sound so beautiful, if not haunting. Thanks for sharing, Liz.