Do You Believe in Magic?
The sweet, strange The Illusionist might
by Molly Templeton
THE ILLUSIONIST: Adapted and directed by Sylvain Chomet. Original screenplay, Jacques Tati. Music, Sylvain Chomet. 80 minutes. PG
You dont have to know the history of Sylvain Chomets new film, The Illusionist, to appreciate the gorgeous, old-fashioned animation or the storys physical quirks and mostly dialogue-free charms. The backstory helps, however, when it comes to making palatable the films dated gender roles. The late Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulots Holiday) wrote the script in the 1950s. When Chomet contacted the Tati estate for permission to use a bit of one of his films in Chomets 2003 The Triplets of Belleville, Tatis daughter, Sophie, told the filmmaker about her fathers unproduced script.
The story of an aging magician whose world is vanishing, piece by piece, at his every performance ã a crooning, ridiculous band fills a venue with screaming girls, but Tatischeffs act draws only a skeptical kid and his grandmother ã The Illusionist floats on a series of loose connections between lonely people. Tatischeff, who distinctly resembles his creator, travels with a few suitcases and his unpleasant rabbit, which is part of his act and an odd companion, as apt to sleep on his chest as to bite the hand that pulls it from a hat. In an isolated village off the coast of Scotland, the magician meets a young woman, Alice, who scrubs the floors in a cheery pub.
Alice stands out in the crowd, her features more clearly drawn than those of the pubs revelers. She isnt exactly wide-eyed, but her attention is immediately on the illusionist, who magicks her soap into a larger bar. The promise of more is all Alice needs. She follows him to Edinburgh, where the odd pair set up in a boarding house filled with performers ã acrobats who say "Hup!” with every movement, a petite ventriloquist and a sad, sad clown. Alice tends their rooms while Tatischeff works (or tries to) to keep gifting her with the things she falls in love with. A beautiful dress is not enough. A beautiful coat is not enough. Though Alice is kind and competent, she doesnt seek to learn to make her own magic; she just wants magic to come to her.
For all the stunning images and exquisite small moments ã for every twitch of the feral rabbits nose, flapping Scottish kilt or beautiful vision of the streets of 1959 Edinburgh ãthis traditional, almost Disney-princess narrative for Alice sits strangely and squarely at the center of The Illusionist, and I felt like I had to peer around it to focus on the imaginative, clever parts of Chomets film, which resonates in a bittersweet and uneasy but fascinating way. The uncertain relationship between Alice and Tatischeff ã the way he works to provide her with the illusion of ease ãmirrors the relationship between the audience and the film. We know hundreds of people are required to make such a thing, but thats not whats on screen. Whats on screen looks like magic: Glowing animated skies roll out over towns small and large, clever acrobats are hired for unlikely jobs and visual jokes and gestures are depicted so carefully, they render the lack of dialogue barely noticeable. Cleverness and heart suffuse the images, but the magicians last message to Alice is a starkly realistic reminder that these things are not enough. What looks like magic, be it film or a performance or a breathtaking image, is the result of hard work.
The Illusionist opens Friday, Feb. 4, at the Bijou.