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Illusionist, The (2010)

The Illusionist is directed by Sylvian Chomet (who also directed the 2003 Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville or Belleville Rendez-vous depending on where you are). It was adapted by Chomet and Henri Marquet into a screenplay from an original story by Jacques Tati, a famous French actor, filmmaker, actor, comic and mime. The film is a broadly silent, melancholy comedy. I say broadly silent as there is little discernible and understandable dialogue, the small amount there is tends be French or Gaelic.
The Illusionist is a story set in 1959 against a backdrop of change in music and entertainment – the rise of movies, rock’n’roll and boy-bands. It follows our titular illusionist, an ageing gentleman named “Tatischeff” (the real-life surname of Jacque Tati) whose appeal is fading in Paris. He takes the decision to try to find work in London, packing up a few belonging and his ill-tempered white stage rabbit. He plays many small events, theatres (where he on the bill with a new rock’n’roll boy band) and private parties. It seems that his appeal, or the appeal of performing arts, is still fading as the world around him changes. At one of private parties he is approached by a rather drunk Scotsman who is quite charmed by the act and invites him to perform for him. Our illusionist takes up the offer and travels to a Scottish island that has only just been wired for electricity. Here he performs and is appreciated again. Whilst performing in the pub (where he also lives), a local girl takes a shine to him and his generous nature. On his eventual departure from the island she follows him to Edinburgh where he tries to get work on the local variety and performing circuit so that they can live. Having her eyes opened to modern living and styles, Alice points out things she likes which our illusionist buys her as gifts, a struggle on his small income and a tough job-market for one with his skills.

There is a lot to laugh at and enjoy in the film but it is tinged with sadness and though set in the late 1950s aspects of the story still resonate now. The Illusionist touches on what happens when your skills are not needed or your job just isn’t wanted anymore and that change will always happen. All of our theatre-based professionals are impacted by the move away from variety shows and the film does not shy away from how they may or may not adapt to this change. We see lots of changes in our daily lives today, how technology is changing the work-place for example. How our characters deal with that feels very real and I have certainly seen these behaviours in my own colleagues. This gives aspects of the story a timeless quality that is still very relevant today. The film also highlights the difficulty we have in communicating with each other and ourselves and how we face up to the reality of our situations.

The Illusionist is a very pretty and charming film to look at and has a slightly dreamlike quality to it. It reminds me very much of the early Professor Layton games with the character designs and backgrounds. Tatischeff is well designed and realised. You can feel his age and has a set of mannerisms that I would describe as stereotypically French. He is depicted as meticulous and deliberate in everything that is familiar to him. For situations he is not prepared his confusion and indecision is easy to see and realistic. Alice is drawn as a wide-eyed, inquisitive, naive individual. She carries a sense of wonder on her face and she is shown to believe that our illusionist is a real magician. Her movements are full of life and youthful energy and as she grows emotionally in the film you can see the new emotions clearly on her actions. The slightly cranky stage-rabbit (well, if you were stuffed into a hat and pulled out on a regular basis you would be too) is comedic gold. It is shown to be quite hostile to its owner and other humans but as time goes on, the character mellows. This is shown more through its movement than any kind of expression with the face.

The other characters we meet are all beautifully created and have a real sense of being lived in. None of them are particularly attractive or derivative in their designs. We have a set of acrobats (always back-flipping and jumping to places), a ventriloquist who interacts through his puppet and a clown who is sad to name a few. They all have their own ticks and mannerisms. The acrobats are constantly on the move, the ventriloquist talks only to his puppet (and his puppet talks to the wider world) and the clown looks and feels like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Because it is a silent film all the communication is done through gesture and expression and it really highlights how little of communication is what we say. Our French illusionist and his island-girl get by reasonably with sign language and mime. It really shows the skills of the animators that the story can be told so successfully without words.

The world in which the characters move and interact is lovely. There is a definite sense that these were (perhaps still are) real places. The theatres are lit how you would expect them to be, both inside and out. The back-stage environment is pokey and small. The shopping streets in Edinburgh are wide with display filled windows. Their accommodation is run down and slightly pokey showing that they do not have the income to live more lavishly. Each of the environments are detailed enough that if the camera were to pull back you could imagine the entire street, city and countryside would all be there. In fact, such a shot does occur and you get to see how it all fits together.

There is definitely a mix of traditional drawing and CG work in the film. The characters are hand-drawn and there is a distinct analogue feel to their motion. There is definite sense of weight to them. It is difficult to tell with the backgrounds but with their scale I would imagine that they were drawn on a PC but they people fit so well into the world you can’t really tell. The vehicles, however, are a different story. Artistically they fit into the world but when they move there is something missing and you can tell they have been animated through a 3D package. Perhaps the motion is too fluid or they are depicted lacking and weight. It definitely jars and takes you out of the scene. Luckily this only happens a few times.

The Illusionist is a wonderful piece of “silent” melancholic comedy. It looks wonderful and feels authentic.  Whilst there are a couple of blips in the animation there is nothing in the film that dates it with its visual style. In the UK it was a PG (parental guidance) which I would completely agree with. Some of the scenes are not appropriate for a young audience, but its story is something a more adult audience would enjoy and resonate with.

(I would advise to not read the back of the DVD case as it spoils a part of the film. It was in the “this film contains scenes of...” and seeing it left me waiting for it. That said it was still a great first watch.)

The Illusionist is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox and is also available streaming in the UK. In the US it is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Picture Classic, DVD and streaming.