The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet (2010)

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(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

Anyone who has seen Sylvain Chomet’s last film, the Oscar Nominated animation The Triplets of Belleville, will know that the director is capable of conjuring pure magic out of the simple tools of ink and paint and music. In The Illusionist, an animated rendering of an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay from the 1950s, Chomet conjures visual magic and creative controversy in equal measure.

The story centers on a traveling illusionist and showman in the 1950s as he goes from town to town, entertaining rapidly diminishing crowds with his tricks and sleight of hand. While performing in a pub in rural Scotland, he comes across a young girl, around 15, who becomes attached to him and his magic. She follows him toEdinburgh, where he becomes attached to her as well, but where work is an even harder grind.

The oncoming rush of Rock N’ Roll and television are largely responsible for the small crowds his kind of show can attract, eventually leading the illusionist to take odd jobs when he is not on stage to pay the added expenses of a young girl that he likes to dote on, buying her shoes and dresses, making them magically appear to her, an extension of his magic off of the stage.

The relationship between the girl and the illusionist is a suddenly deep one, built mostly upon a foundation of gestures and glances. It’s an automatic, easy trust, but not a cheap one. It starts out as a sleight of hand that they are both willing participants in, but does not stay that way for long as she matures and he comes to grip with the change in the wind.

Chomet and his team of animators have done an astounding job bringing this story to life, even if it is over the objections of Jacques Tati’s living relatives. I wish I could list every single animator here, because they all deserve recognition. It was no simple task to bring this to the screen, and the film relies almost entirely on the quality of the animation. Words don’t get in the way because they are few and far between. It doesn’t need words. It’s about the emotional faces and the measured motion, and the whimsical interplay of shadow and light is of particular beauty and note.

It’s an understandable thing that Tati’s family should have reservations about someone else completing his work. Tati was singular; he made Tati films and only Tati films. Chomet is singular as well, however. There is no mistaking this film for another director, not even Tati. But there is a good balance struck between the two worlds, and if Chomet has perhaps misunderstood some of Tati’s motives, it was clearly not out of disrespect. It’s a controversy that doesn’t need to exist in public. It’s something for Tati aficionados to squabble about, but not of material importance to what the film is any more than Krzysztof Kieślowski’s intentions were to Tom Tykwer filming Heaven after his death. Heaven was a brilliant film in and of itself, a part of Kieślowski, but a Tykwer film. So is The Illusionist, and that’s how it should be taken: by itself, as an exceptionally well made, heartbreaking film.