The Illusionist (2010, Sylvain Chomet)
There are two things you should know before I tell you how I felt about The Illusionist. The first is that The Tripets of Belleville, director and animator Sylvain Chomet’s full-length feature debut, is in my view one of the greatest films of the last ten years, and not at all far from being one of the best cartoons ever made. Even on a technical basis alone, after years of excessive CG animation it was a relief to return to a largely hand-drawn hybrid and to be actually part of an animator’s world again instead of, with all due respect, a computer’s rendering of that sort of imagination. Quite apart from that, the story and sound design were enormously creative and compelling, and I muchly appreciated the return to dialogue-free storytelling itself, cartoons having become no better than live action films about using scripted words and vocal acting as a fallback. It was exciting and profoundly moving to me to even consider being back in that world again for Chomet’s long-awaited followup.
The other thing is that Jacques Tati, the great French filmmaker whose famous unproduced script generated this film, is thus far a blind spot for me, a director along with many other world luminaries whose work I desperately need to gain familiarity with (one of the primary goals of this blog, of course) but so far don’t know well at all. I know to some extent his basic style, but don’t feel comfortable speaking of it with any authority; the upshot is this is one of the reviews posted here that I’m almost certain will one day be revised or perhaps entirely rewritten once I have better context for understanding and appreciating it. With that said, I doubt that Chomet intends for his film to work solely for those with a scholarly devotion to Tati — in the sense of purely enjoying the film, I’m as prepared as anyone.
And there is much to dive into here for anyone who loves great animation; the sharp but warm humor and handcrafted beauty of Belleville return here amply, at least to start with. And it’s an enormous boon that the film is again executed with virtually no dialogue, an actual bit of wonderful and seamless innovation that actually does the things Pixar pretended to do with WALL-E. We begin with the following of an unlucky magician, Tatischeff, carting his act from town to town to unappreciative audiences, until he meets up with a sweet-natured young woman named Alice who believes he is genuinely capable of magic. He takes her under his wing, making a home in Glasgow, and various comic episodes follow his attempts to forge a life for her, often beyond his means and at odds with her often selfish and childlike behavior. His livelihood under constant threat by middling audiences, he takes night jobs and tries to maintain the, yes, illusion of a perfect life for the girl who by now is virtually his adopted daughter. But ultimately it’s no longer possible, between his pride and resentment and her growing up to find love and other problems, for him to remain in Glasgow. He gives up magic and travels onward, leaving his faithful but bitey rabbit in the wild and a note for the girl reading simply “MAGICIANS DO NOT EXIST.”
As an exercise in melancholy and a series of divertingly funny setpieces, The Illusionist is a lyrical if limited success, though its strongest moments are easily within its first and last ten minutes. The notion of Chomet’s world colliding with Tati’s is so seemingly perfect it’s rather heartbreaking how rarely it actually seems to work to the better abilities of either. In Tati’s corner there is the physicality and palpable bending of time and reality that drove his films, an impossible idea to truly duplicate in animation — there is the possibility, of course, of physical humor in a cartoon, but as humor of the drawn and not of the body, no physical landscape to truly subvert. Much more to the point is the sickening fact that Chomet has essentially made his sophomore project a formalist one; Belleville was remarkable because its character animation was based on such a strong sense of caricature and exaggeration. It was in so many respects a cartoon. The Illusionist strives for a stark, emotionless realism, Chomet’s clever and fascinating distortions of human beings visible only in the background. Even the dogs look like real dogs! Worst of all, in the two primary characters we have no compelling traits to speak of, their faces consistently flat and free of anything but the most basic, reactive emotion. We fail to sense anything from the hero’s eyes beyond a certain constant resignation that fails to sell us on any reason we should find him interesting, and this spoils much of the pure beauty of all that’s around him.
Some blame for the film’s ultimate disappointment must also be laid on Tati’s story and script. Of course, a resignation to the cruelty of the world is in large part the thesis here, but Tati seems to have had his own agenda in getting this point across. The characterization of Alice is particularly uneven; she’s alternately a mature and responsible partner to Tatischeff, a crucial ally in his life, and a soul-sucking greedy leech, which may be in some sense the idea if the controversy regarding Tati’s script, alleging that he wrote the film as a letter to his estranged daughter, is valid. Nevertheless, the relationship of the pair remains too volatile and unclear for the characters’ gradual drifting apart to have the meaning one wishes it could. Herein are the limits of the nonverbal communication throughout — the film can’t entirely sell that Alice can be a complete person but still have such a streak of naivete and utter dependence without our knowing her better, which is disallowed by the format. That’s not to say I’d prefer more dialogue, just a more organized story; indeed, Chomet’s trick of rendering all speech as gibberish fully sells the experience of disorientation and his own feeling about the futility of language itself. The trick was exponentially better suited to The Triplets of Belleville than this, though, which is ironic given Tati’s own expansive toying with sound and cinematic formalism. As for the heartbreaking note Tatischeff leaves to his erstwhile companion, it choked me up… but as a grand parting statement, I prefer “you are Lisa Simpson.”