Fans of Sylvain Chomet’s great Triplets of Belleville (2003) likely know the style to expect from The Illusionist – minimal dialogue (often replaced with mutterings), multi-layered and deep-focus water-color styled animated renderings, and an engaging combination of slight slapstick, situational humor and a deeply realized pathos.
The Illusionist boasts an illustrious past: the screenplay was written by the great Jacques Tati, he of the classic films Mon Oncle, M. Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime, among others. The title character in the Chomet film is sort of a composite Tati/Hulot character, in fact. Gone, however, is the bumbling pseudo-Keaton nature of Hulot. This character (“Tatischeff” in a not-so-subtle reference) is actually quite adept with his hands. One of the lone slapstick moments, where Tatischeff attempts to wash a car, having taken a side job as a mechanic, is motivated not by his general clumsiness, as might be the case in an earlier Tati-directed film, but by his lack of qualification and sleepiness, both of which attest to the lengths to which he will go to make money in order to please the young girl Alice whom he has involuntary taken under his wing. This is what makes up the overarching plot of the film.
Those familiar with the background here will realize the controversy surrounding the film. Tati infamously had a child and abandoned her. The Illusionist was to function as his apology and his confessional. Unfortunately for cinema-goers, Tati died before he was able to make the film. Chomet’s The Illusionist presents Tatischeff as quite sympathetic and fails to recognize the other side of the coin (the reality, in fact). Indeed (SPOILER here), even when Tatischeff leaves Alice at the end he is not abandoning her with malicious or ignorant intent, but is doing what’s best for her. He is, at this moment and ironically, physically mirroring Tati’s actions in real life, but fictionally playing the part of the responsible parent. This is a valid criticism to level for those with a personal connection – one I do not have.
There are many small moments that speak to Chomet’s control of the film. As mentioned before, the “shot selection” is gorgeous and deeply thought out. Cities are drawn down to the finest detail and with small in-jokes for the repeat or careful viewer (i.e. the restaurant “Mac Daunnald’s”). Chomet also knows how to tell a joke. When Tatischeff is ushered across waters to perform in a small pub in Scotland Chomet places the camera at the back of the boat and behind Tatischeff and his comically-drunken host. The joke here: the wind blows the host’s kilt up, very nearly revealing the bareness that lies beneath. This joke is made all the more worthwhile later in the script when the same two characters make the return journey. Instead of beating a dead horse and simply repeating the same joke, Chomet now places the camera in front of them. The memory of the past joke (wind and kilt) is enough to make us laugh, but we are treated now to the looks on the men’s faces – bliss for the host, wonder of the next assignment for Tatischeff. Chomet therefore successfully gives this shot a double-meaning and fully utilizes the power of cinema (any Maya Deren fans out there – The Act of Recognition) to recognize past and present.
If there’s any criticism of The Illusionist it comes for me at a moment towards the end. Tatischeff, drunk and losing hope, returns to the small hotel room that he shares with Alice. She has been give the bedroom, he the couch. Before collapsing on his makeshift bed he stumbles to her door and pushes it open. Chomet cuts to a POV shot through the doorway of Alice sleeping. The shot lingers silently and then the door closes. What does this shot imply? Is it meant to be Tatischeff mulling his decision to leave? Tati himself mourning the loss of his child? Or something more sinister? This is simple cinematic montage stuff: A+B=C. A (Shot of drunken Tatischeff) + B (POV shot of sleeping Alice) = C. C for me spelled danger, menace, and an emotion wholly separate from the rest of the film. It’s the one misguided moment I found in here.
That being said, The Illusionist is phenomenal. The detailed characters, the time spent realizing even extras in a crowd, jokes extending to the background and sides of frames, and a score that accurately replaces any real need for dialogue make this not, as some critics have claimed, Chomet trying to mimic Tati, but a Chomet film that resurrects the spirit of the great director.