"The Illusionist": Sylvain Chomet’s Beautiful, Melancholy Ambiguity
All film is an illusion. Persistence of vision is the illusion that still images projected at 24 frames a second are actually moving, while suspension of disbelief is the illusion that shadows on a wall are as real as what we see and experience every day. Like the best stage magicians, great film can compel us to believe what we are watching is real, even if we know on some subconscious level that it’s just a trick done with mirrors. Animation is an even bigger, more difficult illusion to pull off, since the on-screen images are drawings, puppets, or CGI renderings given the illusion of life. It’s actually pretty amazing that the greatest animated filmmakers can bring tears to our eyes and warmth to our hearts. With his bittersweet film The Illusionist, French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet proves that he is one of those gifted animators. Steeped in melancholy and a gnawing sense of loss, The Illusionist is one of the most striking animated films released in recent memory, providing more food for thought than any dozen films out of Hollywood in any medium (including those animation wizards at Pixar).
The title character of The Illusionist is a down-on-his-luck stage magician called Tatischeff (the real family name of famed French director Jacques Tati, from whom the Illusionist takes his appearance and mannerisms as well). When we first meet him, the Illusionist is struggling through the 1950’s as audiences for his brand of entertainment dwindle. While performing at a pub in distant rural Scotland, he makes a connection with the scullery maid Alice, despite the fact that neither one can speak the language of the other. A small act of kindness when he buys her a new pair of shoes leads to her leaving her life to join the Illusionist in his itinerant lifestyle. The two settle in Edinburgh at a hotel seemingly occupied by similarly failing entertainers, including a trio of acrobats, a ventriloquist, and a suicidally depressed circus clown. A sexual relationship between the two is carefully and conclusively ruled out, but the two seem to share something other than a surrogate father/daughter relationship. Taking note of Alice’s wonderment at the cosmopolitan fashions of Edinburgh, Tatischeff begins giving increasingly more elegant and expensive gifts in an attempt to please her, even though this forces him to take on a number of odd jobs and even hock some of his own belongings.
First and foremost, The Illusionist is an absolutely beautiful film that any fan of hand-drawn animation must seek out and watch at least once. I can only think of Hayao Miyazaki or the Fleischer Brothers in their prime as animated filmmakers who produced something even vaguely comparable. It is a glorious tribute to the art form executed with meticulous care, looking especially stunning to modern audiences more accustomed to hand-drawn TV cartoons animated on the twos or threes. Both the title character and Alice are brought to vibrant life by a sense of physicality that is nothing short of astounding, from the Illusionist’s dead-on physical impersonation of Jacques Tati’s clowning Monsieur Hulot character to Alice’s shy awkwardness as a girl on the cusp of blooming into womanhood. There’s even an astonishing believability to the Illusionist’s rotund and irascible rabbit, who reliably nips at anyone who comes within range. The movie’s visual creativity can also be especially thrilling, as when the Illusionist takes employment at an advertising agency and assists the circus acrobats in painting a billboard.
Perhaps because the two characters are unable to communicate with each other in anything except sign language, the movie also proves masterful at telling its story almost entirely through pantomime and body language. There are perhaps a dozen lines of dialogue throughout the film, but we can keenly feel the Illusionist’s acute discomfort at his dwindling audiences or at his inability to communicate with Alice. We can feel her sense of wonderment at his stage magic tricks or at the new urban panorama before her. The movie’s talent for pantomime can even play out a gag like an entertainingly believable drunk Scot, whose body language communicates his gleeful inebriation as much as his slurred, unintelligible, brogue-tinted gibberish. Special note must also be paid to the way The Illusionist can manage to establish a sense of place in its assorted settings, from the run-down theaters where Tatischeff can attempt to ply his trade to the ravishingly gorgeous Scottish countryside to the beautifully melancholy city of Edinburgh. The Illusionist becomes a must-watch movie for an animation fan on its technical merits alone.
However, the aspect of The Illusionist which I find most striking is its willingness to play on ambiguities. Most Hollywood films, especially the animated ones, are hellbent on clarity. Everything must be carefully and meticulously spelled out, if not hammered home repeatedly with the grace of a rampaging elephant. Hollywood cinematic animation also seems stuck in a creative rut of “be true to yourself” or “follow your dreams” stories whose endings are telegraphed almost from the first frames. The Illusionist is much more subtle, refusing to conform to conventions and willing to paint in highly nuanced shades of gray to repeatedly confound our expectations. Many plot synopses and reviews of the film state that Alice believes the Illusionist’s magic is real. I find it more credible to think that Tatischeff thinks Alice believes his magic is real, perhaps because it is the only way he can explain her fascination with him, but neither he nor the audience is ever quite sure. Alice herself is a bit cryptic as well, seeming innocent and sheltered but then acting in ways that indicate she is older than she appears. It might be easiest to describe the two as having a father/daughter relationship, but that drastically over-simplifies things; he often acts in casually callous ways that don’t reflect well on him, while she often seems blissfully unaware of the sacrifices he makes on her behalf. The marketing for the movie and conventional wisdom might lead one to think that The Illusionist is a tale of redemption and coming-of-age, and while it is in some sense, its ending is so ambiguous as to be positively anti-climactic compared to what Hollywood has trained us to come to expect. My initial reaction to this ambiguity was negative, but on consideration and repeated viewing, I am beginning to think that this lack of clarity is not only intentional, but a critical creative element of the film. Despite its more comedic moments, melancholy and ambiguity are the two driving forces of the movie, and recognizing the story’s sadness and ambivalence tempers the sharp criticisms surrounding the making of this movie by one of Jacques Tati’s grandsons. While I do not doubt that family’s deep personal anguish at Tati’s continued neglect, it seems to me that The Illusionist can be viewed as an extended apology to Tati’s abandoned daughter as much as the “grotesque eclectic nostalgic homage to its author,” as Tati’s grandson describes it.
Sony’s Blu-ray of The Illusionist is a visual feast, bringing the movie to vibrant, palpable life on high-definition screens. The presentation ensures we can fully appreciate the tremendous pencil mileage (with CGI augmentation) that went into its making. It is a near-religious experience watching the Scottish countryside emerge from mists as the Illusionist arrives there and then seeing it fade back into those mists as he leaves. I suppose it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the company that invented Blu-rays did such an excellent job in mastering this one, but it seemed to me that even the trailers that ran before the film were sharper and crisper than the norm. The movie does not really exert its 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack, although this is to be expected for a film that makes such heavy use of silences and pauses. Still, the soundtrack is clear and detailed, and showcases the lovely score of the film. Unfortunately, the bonuses on the disc fall short. The “making of” featurette clocks in at a disappointingly short three minutes; the fact that it presents animators working in assorted media with no guiding narration feels less like an omission and more like a “making of” featurette guided by the same principles as the movie itself. There are also several pencil tests and progressions, although precious few of those as well. The Blu-ray also comes with a DVD, which contains no bonus features beyond the theatrical trailer.
It’s more than a little sad to realize how well The Illusionist works as a metaphor for the state of cinematic hand-drawn animation as much as one for Tati’s personal life. Like the Illusionist’s brand of stage magic, it seems that even the most technically accomplished hand-drawn animation is a dying art, playing out to smaller and smaller audiences as the crowds go for the bigger, brassier entertainment elsewhere. If so, the sumptuously beautiful packaging of The Illusionist layers even more ironic commentary on the metaphor. Regardless, it is a beautiful, thought-provoking work of art that deserves far more attention than I suspect it will ever get.