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'The Illusionist': A Lesson in True Magic

When his debut film, The Triplets of Belleville, (aka Belleville Rendezvous) was released in 2003, Sylvain Chomet made history. His quirky tale of a cyclist captured by gangsters received praise for its unique music, imagery, and dialogue-free storytelling. It was the first animated PG-13 film to be nominated for an Oscar and established Chomet's identify as a loud, but beloved, eccentric. Those who watch 'Triplets' might see him as a comic--and while there is truth to that view, Chomet's followup work would show him to be so much more.

Contrary to the offbeat whimsy of 'Triplets,' The Illusionist is set in a world that has lost its innocence. Released in 2010, the film follows a discouraged magician on his quest for fame. Struggling to make ends meet, the man travels from town to town, performing at bars, theatres, and any place that will give him the stage. Few people show interest in his act, however, forcing him to seek out new and increasingly obscure places of work. His travels eventually lead him to a Scottish pub. There, the magician meets Alice, a young, demure, and beggarly girl who believes his magic is real. Drawn to these mistaken powers, Alice follows him to the city, and the two take up residence together. Sadly, the magician's career continues to suffer. Ashamed of his crumbling image and afraid to face the girl who looked up to him, he parts with Alice in secret, leaving her his savings, flowers, and a somber note reading "Magicians do not exist." 

'The Illusionist' has little dialogue, and rightly so. While its form remains faithful to Chomet's storytelling style, it also inspires viewers on a symbolic level, capturing the magician's muted sense of self-worth on one hand and the wordless awe of his young friend on the other. When Chomet introduces us to Alice and the magician, he is telling us a story of opposites: a story of Man meeting Woman, Age mingling with Youth, and Reality clashing with Dreams. 

While Alice acts as her friend's greatest fan, the irony of the film is that no one believes in magic less than the magician himself--and as the curtains close on his career, we feel lent to agree with him. Chomet, however, is a master of subtlety. Beneath the film’s superficial sadness, a much deeper, brighter power emerges from the magician’s life, proving that, with all things magic, nothing is ever what it seems.

The magician’s charm lies in his kindness. Despite his dying hope, he remains generous and tender to Alice, buying her fine clothes and refusing to crush her fantasy for as long as possible. His actions come at great expense, but as his wallet continues to thin, he remains steadfast in giving his friend a better life. Meanwhile, Alice accepts these gifts unwittingly, thinking that the magician has summoned them from thin air. Remember this, and viewers can appreciate the look of revelation in her eyes when she reads the magician’s note. Aware of her friend’s secret, Alice comes to terms with the truth of magic--but it is inspiration, not disappointment, that she feels. Producing gifts at will would have been of no consequence to the magician. Instead, he chose to do something truly sacrificial, forfeiting his own comfort and career for the sake of someone else. 

Alice thrives in the city; as she grows into her fine clothes, her confidence and womanhood also start to blossom. Eventually, she falls in love, and the life ahead of her begins to look far brighter than ever before. All this was possible because of the magician. Conscious of her debt, Alice chooses to effect the same, selfless love of her friend in the lives of those around her. As she finishes the magician’s note and steps outside, her love interest waiting to greet her, rain begins to fall. 

In a symbolic act of giving, Alice shares her coat with the man, and together the huddled couple walks down the street--their white, makeshift poncho illuminating the night while a sea of black, lonely umbrellas passes them by. Chomet’s takeaway is clear. While the magician’s act is illusory, his love has made Alice a better person. Whether he realizes it or not, his failure as a showman has no bearing on his identity. Because of him, a life has been changed, and that is a magic more powerful than any hat gag or card trick. .

It might, in fact, make him the greatest magician of all.