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The Illusionist (L'Illusionniste)

dir: Sylvain Chomet
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The Illusionist, not to be confused with the flick of the same name that came out a few year’s ago with Ed Norton as a weirdo with a beardo, is the fourth film we can believe that Jacques Tati wanted to make but never got the chance to.

Who’s Jacques Tati, I hear you ask, already overwhelmed with irritated yawns before finishing your own thought process? Well, he was a French guy who made some films that pretty much tried to outdo everything Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton did, except he did it about thirty years after they did it, when colour and sound existed in cinema as well.

Jour de Fete, Mon Oncle, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, Traffic – these are famous flicks to film wankers, turtleneck wearers and chin strokers the world over, but they might not be common currency amongst most people. Sure, I’ve seen them, but I am a film wanker who strokes his chin ever so definitively, though turtlenecks are a bridge too far.

As it is, had I not known about Jacques Tati and his winning ways, I’m not sure L’Illusionniste would have meant anything to me apart from being a pretty little animated flick. And if I didn’t know anything about the story, based apparently on an unproduced script of Tati’s, or about Tati’s life, then the flick would have even less resonance. It still would have been amusing, though, and quite beautiful.

As it is, the chap who previously made The Triplets of Belleville, an animated flick I saw at the cinemas back in the day, has made another anachronistically quaint and clever little flick honouring this titan of the cinematic and miming arts.

Tatischeff is a stage magician in the 1950s, and apparently, the cartoon incarnation of Jacques Tati himself, or at least Monsieur Hulot. He plies his trade in gay Paris, but the kids no longer want to see old-school entertainers pulling angry rabbits out of their hats, or making stuff disappear: they want androgynous crooners and pop stars to wow them with their caterwauling.

Tatischeff wanders over the Channel, looking for work, and is just as incompetent and unwanted in London, apparently, but he does come to the notice of some drunken Scottish guy, who invites him to come up north to ply his act. After a train and boat ride, he ends up in what I assume are the Orkneys or the Hebrides, performing in front of people who applaud the lighting of a light bulb.

Easy crowd. Whilst there, seemingly because these people are such simpletons, a girl, possibly called Alice, believes he really is an actual magician and becomes friendly with him because he also buys her a pair of shoes, to replace her soleless pair. And I think she washes his shirt or something.

They move to Edinburgh, depicted unbelievably as an incredibly gorgeous city, and he pursues work while they live in a hotel. As we wonder as to what the nature of their relationship is meant to be, we’re supposed to wonder as to what lengths he is prepared to go to keep her happy. All she seems to want is more clothes and shoes and girly shit. He keeps providing it with his dwindling money, taking odd jobs in between performing, always only ever sacrificing more and more for nothing I can really figure out in return.

All the while, he’s enduring a continual grinding down, the diminishing of his art, and the dissolution of other similar performers around him. A miserable clown in the room above edges ever closer to suicide. A ventriloquist and his partner dissolve into puddles of alcoholism and bad sex. Well, maybe not the bad sex bit, but they are clearly no longer in favour in this workaday world.

Tatischeff maintains his strange dignity throughout, always seeming to want to help the others around him, but his actions ultimately are never enough and he’s never appreciated for the god he so clearly is.

And then it ends.

I’m not sure I could convey anything more as to the merits of the plot of this flick if I hadn’t done some minuscule digging, because otherwise, that’s all there is, and it doesn’t give any clue as to whether the flick is worth watching or not. It’s an extremely lovely and gentle movie, with music to lull us into a real sense of security, and truly beautiful art work. Edinburgh in reality has never looked so lovely, and the manner in which the artists and animators involved evoke an almost mythical time when Edinburgh could have looked like this do a remarkable job grounding the flick, making it more than a sequence of postcard shots.
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Tatischeff himself is animated superbly, in absurd and hilariously expressive ways, seeing as he’s a barely suppressed, barely restrained figure in perpetual danger of fucking something up. His shows on stage convey this well, but the scene where he’s waiting to go onstage after a boy band is playing and making all the girls in the audience scream, and has to prepare and re-prepare his act countless times as they do countless encores, perfectly encapsulates everything we need to know about the physical catastrophe the man is capable of.

As for the story itself, I have to say, the elements to do with the girl didn’t really make sense to me while I was watching the film, which at the time seemed to be saying nothing more complicated than ungrateful women drain you of your money and will to live, before you eventually ditch them and go on your way, a little more exhausted, a little less trusting or giving towards people.

I only found out afterwards that the story itself arose from Jacques Tati’s guilt about his daughter, and it was his way of saying what, exactly? That his daughter was an ungrateful, money-grubbing bitch?

I’m not sure. Some of the press release bullshit described this script as Tati’s love letter to his daughter, written and given to her two years prior to his death. It implies that he, genuinely a magician of the cinema, of sorts, gave what little he could to his daughter, before she ran off with some young guy. And that the world in which Tati lived no longer prized what he did, and so, too, before the end, he would be scurrying off to obscurity unloved and unmissed by anyone.

Don’t know, don’t care. I don’t mind doing homework to really understand a flick, but a flick shouldn’t require Cliff Notes or addenda to be understood and for it to resonate. If it doesn’t resonate while you’re watching it, it’s unlikely to really strike a chord days later when an element of the plot clicks into place.

It isn’t, in any way, a flick that wowed me as much as Triplets of Belleville did in the day, mostly because I thought Triplets was brilliant and weird back in the day, whereas L’Illusionniste is somewhat prettier, but more staid and conventional in its story, though not so much in its storytelling. Speaking of storytelling, the skill at work in such a production is of a higher level, because, as with the earlier mentioned flick, there is little in the way of dialogue in this flick. Sure, people speak, but what they’re saying rarely if ever matters. What they do, or how they look, or what happens to them tells the story. I find it amazing and refreshing, but many people could find it tiresome and stultifying, because it requires and rewards patience and calm attention to detail.

And very low expectations.

It couldn’t have looked or sounded more lovely, so it’s a superlative achievement purely on an aesthetic level. It’s a powerful reminder of what animators were achieving for a century before Pixar came along with its supercomputers and legions of over-caffeinated programmers. It’s a tremendous irony to me that this flick was nominated in the Best Animated Film category in the upcoming Academy awards, against Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon. Talk about an underdog, or whatever the French equivalent is.

Still, I didn’t really get or care much about the story, even as I acknowledge that Tati was a master who deserves honouring, and to whom homies should spill some of their 40s on the curb to pay tribute to (or whatever the Roman tradition of spilling wine for the dead contemporary equivalent is these days). I actively disliked the female character, or rather her lack of characterisation, and so what little she did didn’t really fill me with concern or interest in her plight, whatever it was.

It is, at turns, a joyous yet melancholy flick, thought it’s pretty enough, and probably might benefit from additional viewings with a bit of background in your back pocket for back up.

It’s no Shrek 4, though, that’s for sure.

7 times the thing about carnivorous bunnies is, if you don’t get them first, they’ll get you out of 10

“Eeeeh, ahhh, ochhh, oooooh” – apparently Scots Gaelic for “I’m well pissed, me.” – L'Illusionniste"