With The Illusionist on the Oscar race, perhaps it’s a good time to finally review it. I’ve never seen a movie by Jacques Tati and I wonder how much that has affected my complete enjoyment of this movie, which is based on an original screenplay by him and whose protagonist, the magician Tatischeff, is patterned after his mannerisms and physical appearance. Although this dimension of the movie will elude me until I discover the Tati’s work, I can still say that Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is one of the best movies of 2010.
I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it, in the last days of December, trying to understand what makes it so incredible; the movie took me for a roller-coaster of emotions and the finale broke my heart. And it did it with economy and subtlety. Perhaps the greatest trick this movie plays is being so simple. It has no dialogue, no famous actors loaning their voices to the characters. Its quality is intangible, impossible to pinpoint.
Tatischeff, a travelling French illusionist in the ‘50s, plies his trade all over Europe, going, always with his irascible rabbit, wherever people will hire him to perform his magic tricks. Business isn’t doing very well, though, because of new competing forms of entertainment – in one hilarious sequence Chomet shows the illusionist having to wait on the backstage for a Beatles-inspired rock band to finish their act before he can get on stage. There’s a feeling of an era fading away in this movie; a running theme is the demise of the old vaudeville performers: magicians, clowns, puppeteers, acrobats, etc., living in cheap hotels, unemployed, prone to suicide and alcoholism. Tatischeff belongs to a breed that wanes mentally and emotionally before dying physically.
Finding it harder and harder to go, he finds a new reason to live when he meets Alice, a maid working at a Scottish hotel. He takes her under her wing and takes her with her in his travels. Chomet makes it pretty clear that nothing sexual goes on between the two. Their relationship is of a father taking care of a daughter. For her he sacrifices everything he has to make her happy. In the end he even sacrifices his magic tricks and sense of wonder. He gets jobs to support her but his ineptitude for anything practical becomes apparent in many humorous gags. He tries to combine magic with advertising only for his love for magic to wither. As he becomes disillusioned, Alice grows into an independent woman who finds happiness without him. She seems to get more out of him that he out of her. He doesn’t judge or blame her. His sacrifices, which can’t be explained with mere altruism, finally make sense in the end.
Chomet’s animated movie creates and develops in 80 minutes and without words two unique personalities that we grow attached to immediately. There’s something wrong when an emotionless, exposition-heavy movie like Inception gets nominated for Best Original Screenplay and this movie, told only with the strength of images, doesn’t. It was David Mamet who said that “a good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.” The Illusionist does just that and creates two characters I considered more real and cared more for than a few flesh and blood characters from Christopher Nolan’s 148-minute-long movie.
However has watched Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville knows that this French animator continues to work with old-fashioned hand-drawn animation and that he mixes it with a personal style that oscillates between the poetic and the bizarre. Chomet is not a slave to realism but nevertheless his incursions into the nostalgic and the melancholy reveal fascinating nuances about the human condition, touching upon guilt, self-punishment and the need for redemption.
There’s little more to say except that, Biutiful and Shutter Island notwithstanding, The Illusionist has the year’s most heartbreaking ending. The ending, after an hour of humour and human sentiments, is a punch in the gut, a relentless attack on the wonder and imagination that make our lives more bearable. I withstood the hopeless bleakness of Biutiful, I sympathised with DiCaprio’s need to punish himself in Shutter Island. But how can one cope with a movie that, hiding behind an innocent old-fashioned animation style, contains this horrifying conclusion: ‘Magicians don’t exist.’ This is a card Tatischeff writes for Alice in the movie’s final moments. A movie – of all things a movie, and animated to boot – saying this is like a cruel joke of vicious cynicism.
We all go through life suspecting this may be true, pushing it back into the recesses of our mind like thoughts about death, but when we speak it out loud the world suddenly becomes a dreary and colourless and unbearable place. Who would want to live in a world without magicians? Why live at all? If they don’t exist, and I don’t mean just magicians in the restricted sense, but all those magicians who invent stories, write books, make movies, all those wonderful entertainers who, in their own way, have something of the old vaudeville and traditional forms of entertainment; if they don’t exist, I repeat, if there’s no one to make our lives more special and bearable through tricks and illusions then what is life? And what’s it good for? Is it just pain and misery, like Biutiful wants us to believe?
Although heartbroken Tatischeff may believe that, Sylvain Chomet, a great magician in his own right, proves, with this movie, the opposite. Magicians exist and The Illusionist is one of the most beautiful and elegant magic tricks played on audiences in a long time.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Screenplay Jacques Tati (original screenplay), Sylvain Chomet (adaptation)
Cast: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
Runtime 80 min