Film Review THE Illusionist
A new Jaques Tati film, years after his death – and a great film at that.
FILM REVIEW – THE ILLUSIONIST 2010
The most beautiful and moving film I’ve seen recently, and possibly ever. A hand drawn animated tale about the decline of music hall variety acts in the early rock and roll era, creating a sense of nostalgia for an era that was over before I was even born.
Made by Sylvan Chomet, who also gave us Belleville Rendezvous, and using a script by Jaques Tati, one of my favourite French filmmakers, responsible for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Playtime and Mon Oncle. Tati, who died in 1982, only made six films, one of which, Playtime, took four years to make. The script for The Illusionist was never used until now and has created some controversy. Tati seems to have written the film around his estranged daughter, in a hope of creating reconciliation with her. Though still alive, she has not been acknowledged as an inspiration for the film by Chomet, which has upset surviving members of Tati’s family.
The story is lovely, poignant and rather sad, though also very funny. Taticheff (Tati’s full real name) is undoubtedly Hulot, Tati’s best known character0 in all but name, and in one telling moment, even sees Hulot on screen when he blunders into a cinema showing Mon Oncle, as the cartoon Tati and real one briefly stare at one another in bafflement. The glimpse of Tati is the only live action instant in a film drawn in 1950’s style animation, with a breath-taking series of views of Edinburgh.
Taticheff is an old school stage magician, rabbits out of hats, concealed balloons and parasols, etc. His rabbit is very fat and barely fits in his hat. It bites him (and everyone else) angrily a lot and feeds on sausages. Nevertheless Taticheff loves it.
Dwindling audiences in Paris drive Taticheff to move to London, where he ends up playing second fiddle to a dreadful rock band, who encores so often he is left with hardly any time in which to perform. Though they get a sell out audience, he gets the attention of only two. He moves to Scotland, initially to a remote island, where he is well received, but the locals are equally amused by their own drunken eccentric antics. Taticheff feels very out of place.
Only one member of the community is really moved by him, an impoverished teenage serving girl. Taticheff takes pity on her wearing broken shoes so he buys her some new ones and presents them to her as part of a conjuring trick. She takes his sleight of hand for real magic, and when he moves to Edinburgh, she stows away after him. They become friends, and in no cheesy sexual way. Taticheff struggles to find work, as a magician, and elsewhere. His efforts at car valeting prove disastrous. and the girl becomes disillusioned when he can’t magic up more and more commercial, material delights. They end up moving into a dilapidated boarding house, with other down on their luck stage entertainers. There is a suicidal clown, a quartet of acrobats and a ventriloquist who ends up pawning his much loved dummy to buy booze.
There is a sublime moment of sorrowful humour (Tati’s trademark) when the clown, unable to get water from a sink tap to clean off his grease-paint, resorts to desperate use of water from his squirty flower on his lapel, to complete the task.
When Taticheff finds himself eating rabbit stew prepared by the young girl, he notices with dread that his own rabbit is missing, but with modern audiences undoubtedly thinking of Fatal Attraction, it turns up safe and sound.
Taticheff buys the young lady a dress, which gets her noticed by a boy of her own age. They fall in love, as Taticheff puts his rabbit out in the wild, and leaves, leaving a note telling the girl that there is no real magic. He has failed to see the transforming effect he has just had on her life. He moves off, destination and fate unknown, and the film closes with a long slow shot of the lights of Edinburgh’s Music Hall venues going out, one by one, closing forever the era to which Taticheff belongs. The dummy is still in its shop window, being offered for free, and still with no takers. It’s a sad ending – almost heart-breaking to see, in a truly lovely film.