The Illusionist Dir. Sylvain Chomet

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2010]

Styles: comedy, animation
Others: Triplets of Belleville, Playtime, Mon Oncle

The Illusionist, directed by Sylvain Chomet (Triplets of Belleville), excels in expressing an evenhanded balance of tenderness and melancholia. Tatischef, the traveling music-hall illusionist of the title, soldiers on with his stage act in a world that prefers fickle rock acts over the type of entertainment he provides — a tightly constructed set of old fashioned magic tricks and sight gags. After performing in an isolated pub in Scotland, he attracts the imagination of Alice, the young girl who cleans up after hours. When she decides to follow him to Edinburgh, believing in his magic and not realizing the sorry state he is truly in both financially and emotionally, their lives change in ways they never expected.

Chomet does a wonderful job here at recreating the pleasurably exhausting details of the world of Jacques Tati, whose treatment was pulled out of a drawer over two decades after his death and used here as source material. But because of Chomet’s guarded legacy, it is easy to look at any minor problem within The Illusionist as exterior to the work, brought on by the second pair of hands on the celluloid. The quintessential Tati character — a stranger in an even stranger world — is suddenly in front of us once again, his towering frame and frail, corkscrewed body a mirror image of the original. The comedy is airtight, built around the same kind of observations of the modern world Tati perfected but also firmly ground in how people interact with the world. Even the visual style, which relies on distance from the subject and wide, static space to leave room for constant movement and visual gags, is occasionally lifted from the world of the great director.

But if it looks and sounds like a Tati film, is The Illusionist ultimately a Tati film? Does Chomet bring anything to the picture? Does our pleasure come from experiencing, once again, the joy of a great comic actor and filmmaker brought back to life? Does Chomet’s very presence in some way hinder the final product?

Fortunately, the mosaic on screen is crafted with gentleness and care, teasing out similarities in the filmmakers and heightening the work of both collaborators. While Chomet’s visual style previous to The Illusionist, which relied on a certain amount of grotesque absurdity interjected into a humanist narrative, does not immediately bring to mind Tati’s universe, take another look at Belleville and you will notice how both artists have idiosyncratic ways of representing bodies, focusing on their abnormalities and mining them for comedic possibilities. Here, Chomet perfectly renders the way Tati’s body is used, whether it be the tallest man in the frame surrounded by the smallest hotel staff imaginable or the way his loose limbs swing from the edge of the tiny couch he is forced to sleep. Like the characters Tati often portrayed, the illusionist’s body is the external representation of his place in the world.

And the inspiration isn’t completely character based. Tati often used setting as an extension of character, highlighting disconnection and awkwardness. Chomet instead emphasizes the innocence and bittersweet tone of the story. Both the color palate and architecture are more noticeably neutral, naturalistic, and pastoral. Muted colors and rough edges are chosen over some of the more bold choices familiar to Tati’s world — think the modernist paradise/nightmares of Playtime and Mon Oncle.

The result, then, is a more delicate take on the material than expected and ultimately rewarding because of it. With poignancy and grace, Chomet’s The Illusionist breathes life into the ghost of another great artist.

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