'The Illusionist": A bittersweet paean to growing old

The magician Tatischeff onstage in "The Illusionist." Animator Sylvain Chomet's style owes a lot to the Disney 'toons of the 1960s.
The magician Tatischeff onstage in "The Illusionist." Animator Sylvain Chomet's style owes a lot to the Disney 'toons of the 1960s.
Posted: January 21, 2011

I'm not sure at exactly what point I fell in love with The Illusionist. Was it the magician's big, crotchety rabbit, making a break for it across a Paris music-hall stage? The image of a train rolling into foggy, early-1960s London, carrying a weary, cigarette-smoking Frenchman? Or was it the shot of this veteran vaudevillian, Tatischeff, being ferried across rough waters to a Scottish isle, where a jolly publican in a kilt has invited him to perform? (There are drops of water on the "lens," as if the exquisitely rendered hand-drawn animation was, in fact, capturing something real.)

Gorgeous, and full of bittersweet whimsy, The Illusionist is animator Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville. It is also, in a sense, Jacques Tati's swan song - adapted from the late Gallic comic star's unproduced screenplay and handed off to Chomet by Tati's daughter (The Illusionist is dedicated to her).

Tatischeff, with his raincoat, too-short trousers, and dogged gait, is a cartoon version of Tati, and there's a sublime moment when the entertainer takes refuge in a cinema and its screen flickers with the real Tati, in his 1958 classic, Mon Oncle.

So, The Illusionist is a film for Tati aficionados, to be sure, but that's a small crowd these days, and this is something that everyone should see. Deceptively simple and almost dialogue-free, Chomet's movie is about the unstoppable forward motion of time, about growing old and seeing the world change around you, and about the love and generosity of a father for his daughter.

It is in the remote Scottish pub, where Tatischeff does his sleights of hand for a merry crowd of locals, that the old man encounters Alice, the inn's young maid. What begins as a series of small gestures - she lights the fire in his room, he buys a pair of new shoes to replace her worn-out ones - becomes something akin to a true father/daughter relationship. The odd duo travel from the edge of the sea (the little village looks like the place Burt Lancaster finds himself in Local Hero) to Edinburgh, and share a hotel room (innocently - he sleeps on the couch). The magician earns money doing his act in a sparsely attended theater, but to conjure up new things for Alice (a dress, a coat, fashionable heels), he secretly takes another job, sneaking off to work in a garage at night.

Chomet's animation style owes a lot to the Disney 'toons of the 1960s, with a bit of Hayao Miyazaki magic thrown in for good measure.

In The Illusionist, the quick-shifting light of the Scottish city - clouds scudding by, the sun throwing shadows across craggy buildings perched on steep hills - frames Tatischeff and Alice adoringly. But there's nothing precious or pretentious about the look of the film, and there are small visual jokes everywhere.

If The Illusionist, ultimately, echoes with sadness, it's a kind of sadness that is full of beauty, too, and that should be embraced and shared.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

 

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