Director: Sylvain Chomet
Cast: Jean-Claude Donda, Edith Rankin
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It was seven years between Belleville Rendezvous and The Illusionist, but Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up immediately transports us back to his whimsical, beguiling world. The Illusionist is every bit as spectacular, its stunning detail and wonderful simplicity a nostalgic contrast to the CGI sheen of modern animation. Nostalgia’s a big thing here, because Chomet has adapted this movie from an undeveloped 1956 script by director Jacques Tati – and affectionately made it his own.
The titular conjuror (Donda), named Tatischeff after his creator, is an entertainer in a dying showbiz world – hi-fis and TVs are on the rise, leaving puppets to wind up in pawnshops and clowns feeling suicidal. With his worn-out suit and battered hat, The Illusionist soldiers on with a sad patience. He waits quietly in the wings of music halls as loud pop bands play endless encores to crowds who have long outgrown rabbits and card tricks.
But when he travels to Scotland to perform for a drunk kilted man in a rural village, Tatisheff picks up a companion: Alice (Rankin), an innocent young girl mesmerised by his magical powers. They both wind up in Edinburgh, a father-daughter-like couple who struggle to survive the changing times. As work and money dries up, he looks high and low for a way to provide Alice with the clothes she desires. He even tries his hand at washing cars, something the old, hunch-backed figure fails at completely.
Drenched in care and precision, the hand-drawn frames flick past with a smooth dedication; this is a tapestry painted by a man who spent years begging Tati’s family to allow him near the unused screenplay and labours over every second. Shifting the location from Prague to Edinburgh, his canvas is soaked with rain, a dazzling tribute to the Scottish town. Streets, buses, and train stations are painstakingly recreated by Chomet’s skillful HB, which depicts everything with the haze of a dream and the precision of a period photograph. The idiosyncratic style easily matches that of Studio Ghibli’s best.
Accompanied by Chomet’s own score, the voice cast mumble and squawk their way through a few incomprehensible lines. It’s a typical trait of the director’s work that no-one speaks very much – it’s virtually a silent movie, with sight gags and body language doing all the work.
One brilliant moment sees Tatischeff modelling items in an upmarket boutique, brandishing brasierres with a flourish unfit for a shop window. But the real grand gesture occurs towards the end, as the gentle pace and subtle humour give way to a heartrending pathos. Swooping the scene up from a field and soaring round the city’s skyline, Chomet’s outdated artwork exposes the sad reality of an old man who loses faith in magic. And then extinguishes the lights in the city, one by one.
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