“The Illusionist” is one of those time-capsule films, with a style so quaint and unassuming it seems transplanted in whole from another era. And it may have arrived at the wrong time for audiences to properly enjoy it — or at least American audiences, for whom any discussion of the film needs to be prefaced with, “Yes, it’s a movie about a magician, but it’s not the one starring Edward Norton.”
At the State
But the magic (for lack of a better word) of this new “Illusionist” — nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar — is worth any confusion it may cause. Which is good, because its background is about to get a lot more confusing. Ready? It’s based on a semi-autobiographical script written in 1956 by legendary French filmmaker Jaques Tati (“Playtime”), now deceased — which would certainly help explain the “from another time period” thing. And it was adapted into animation by director Sylvain Chomet, best known for “The Triplets of Belleville,” who modeled the title character’s demeanor and appearance after Tati himself, or more accurately after the version of himself he often played in his films (a bumbling, Chaplinesque figure named Mr. Hulot).
It would certainly seem at first glance like the decades of disconnect between script and screen would prevent “The Illusionist” from escaping its trappings as a great mind’s afterthought, a past-its-expiration piece of film-buff fluff. Many elements of Tati’s original vision were altered in the finished product, including the fundamental medium through which the story is told. But the film somehow transcends its curio status, quite magnificently. Think of its long road to production as the extravagant setup to a really great trick, the kind that makes an audience cheer while asking, “How did they do that?”
Turns out that Tati and Chomet were naturally made for each other. Both share a penchant for elegant, complex scene construction and surrealist slapstick. Both view dialogue as an intrusion on a film’s aesthetic appeal. And both use their films to satirize the chaos of the modern world. To this mix, Chomet adds one element essential for viewers: He gets us to care about the plights of certifiably bizarre characters.
This is why we root for the film’s aging magician Tatischeff as he bumbles through increasingly smaller venues, performing the same old parlor tricks and carefully rolling up his same old poster so he can take it to the next gig. It’s why we root for Alice, a young maid who’s astounded by his talents and follows him to Edinburgh, where she keeps insisting he buy her expensive gifts (thinking he makes them magically appear, when in fact he blows through his paltry savings to please her). And it’s why we root for a background motley crew of yesterday’s entertainers, including a down-on-his-luck ventriloquist and a suicidal clown.
Everyone here is dealing in some way or another with encroaching loneliness, the sense that the world they once knew has passed them by. Tatischeff keeps indulging Alice’s materialistic urges because he desperately needs someone around who respects and admires him, no matter what the cost. It’s a sad thought and a distinctly human one — the idea that you’ll wake up one day with no one fulfilling that need. Forget dying alone; living alone is the hard part.
Chomet communicates this longing with hilarious set pieces, the best one involving a cigar-chomping American and his shiny car. Unsurprisingly for fans of “Belleville,” Chomet accomplishes some incredible things with his animation, like sweeping panoramas of the Scottish countryside. And he does it all while still honoring Tati’s legacy as an old-world artist and performer, giving him what his characters can only dream about: one more moment in the sun.
Yesterday’s unrealized idea becomes today’s masterpiece. What a trick.