TIFF Movie Review: The Illusionist (2010)

A scene from The Illusionist
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One of my most anticipated films of the latter half of 2010 was easily Sylvain Chomet’s latest animated film, The Illusionist. It’s the director’s first feature length film since The Triplets of Belleville (a film I initially disliked, but have come to enjoy immensely) was nominated for two Oscars in 2004, including Best Animated Feature. The Illusionist is brought to life in the same hand-drawn animated style he used for Belleville and the script is an adaptation of an unproduced screenplay written by the iconic French comedian and filmmaker Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle). Essentially, what reason would you have to not be interested in this project?

Tati’s original screenplay is described as a love letter from a father to a daughter. As innocent as that may sound it becomes a bit more tragic once you learn that while Tati’s daughter Sophie was the one to give the screenplay to Chomet, the family of Tati’s illegitimate and estranged daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, claims she is the real inspiration for the story. While the general public will never know for sure the truth of this matter, The Illusionist is certainly filled with more than enough sadness to give the controversy some weight and will likely change how you view this film.

Set in 1959, we are first introduced to the titular magician, Tatischeff, as he performs small magic shows starting in Paris and eventually taking him to a small pub in Scotland. Drawn to look, move and act just as Tati did in such classics as M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle (the latter of which is actually seen in the film), Tatischeff is and only could be portrayed by Tati, which means animation was the only solution. The film reflects such classic Tati features in all manner of execution, that is except for tone. While there are moments of comedy, The Illusionist is predominantly a sad tale of a dying breed and the passing of time.

Moving from place to place, Tatischeff struggles to find an audience interested in his tricks as the day of stage entertainers is ready to give way to flamboyant rock stars. However, during his visit to Scotland a young bar maid by the name of Alice believes his magic to be real. She follows him to Edinburgh and the two strike up a peculiar relationship.

Neither speak the same language and for that matter the film itself never resorts to one language and doesn’t provide subtitles. Brief moments of English can be heard as well as French and Gaelic, but for the most part hand gestures are how Tatischeff and Alice communicate and the audience has to do their best to stay attuned to this aspect. Nevertheless, it isn’t something you’ll have to worry about too much as, in traditional Tati fashion, there isn’t much dialogue anyway.

The lack of dialogue adds to the reflective nature of the film. The audience is forced to absorb and pay attention to every aspect of the frame and every twitch of the characters. The film, from this perspective is gorgeous. And while this film mimics the animated style Chomet used for Belleville, The Illusionist doesn’t find kinship with that film in any other way.

While the animation may be gorgeous this is not the upbeat film Belleville was. This is a sorrowful story as Alice continues to believe the gifts she receives from Tatischeff are conjured by magic, driving the starving magician deeper into debt. The brief moments of comedy exude chuckles, but they are often overshadowed by the dour nature of the story on a whole.

I can’t say I loved this movie, but I certainly respect it. Chomet and his team of animators have produced a piece of art to be marveled, but the story is too gloomy for my liking. As sheets of animated rain fall throughout the film I was at the same moment awed by the art and drowning beneath it.