"The Illusionist" will break your heart. Gradually. Gently. Thoroughly.
In his follow-up to the delightfully bizarre 2003 animated picture, “The Triplets of Belleville,” filmmaker Sylvain Chomet has dramatically refined his animation style and deepened his storytelling skills.
The movie is based on an unproduced screenplay by the late Jacques Tati, France’s revered comic filmmaking genius. Chomet judiciously revised the script while retaining the perceptive humanistic sensibility that characterizes Tati’s work.
Set in the 1950s, “The Illusionist” is the story of a middle-aged magician forced to come to terms with the fact that his act – a product of the age of vaudeville – is hopelessly out of date. Crowds at theaters where he traditionally has played now clamor for rock shows put on by the electrified likes of Billy Boy and the Britoons, a quartet of pompadoured dandies in skinny suits bearing more than a passing resemblance to the early Beatles.
With gigs growing increasingly scarce, the magician must travel far and wide to find bookings. From Paris to London to a remote island in Scotland and eventually to Edinburgh (where Chomet himself now lives and works), he performs his tricks for dwindling audiences.
Along the way, he’s joined by a nave teenage girl named Alice who’s fascinated by his feats of legerdemain and comforted by his fatherly, protective attitude toward her.
Having grown up poor in a small village on the Scottish island, she’s gaga over the goods she sees in Edinburgh’s shop windows: high-heeled shoes, elegant coats, lovely dresses. The magician indulges her, even though he can barely pay the rent on their apartment in a rundown Edinburgh hotel. She’s grateful but oblivious to the true costs of his kindness. He knows he can’t keep indulging her, but he’s too softhearted to stop.
Disaster looms. But it comes gradually and quietly.
The quality of animation in “The Illusionist” is extraordinary. Deftly blending hand-drawn and computer-generated styles, Chomet’s images are remarkably detailed and beautiful. His use of light, fading softly into night and gradually brightening into day, is lyrical.
Skies have a pearly quality and rain and mist envelop landscapes, reinforcing a sense of languid melancholy.
He has a particular fascination with the machinery of transportation. Lovingly rendered trains, boats and automobiles crisscross the screen in exactingly choreographed movements. This world is ever on the move, and the implication is that the magician no longer can keep up.
In the style of Tati, and of “Triplets,” dialogue is limited. Expressive faces and eloquent physical gestures communicate the characters’ thoughts and feelings with such precision that words are unnecessary.
The picture also is quite funny in parts. The magician’s white rabbit, which resents being stuffed into and yanked out of his top hat, expresses its displeasure by biting. A scene in which its owner worries his critter might have ended up in a stewpot is a comic high point.
A trio of frenetic acrobats who literally bounce in and out of scenes chanting “Hut! Hut! Hut!” as they go, also lighten things up.
But the prevailing mood is one of gentle sadness. The hotel where the magician and Alice take up residence is a kind of refuge for people like him: vaudevillians in the twilight of their careers. One is suicidal. Another has taken to the bottle.
The magician resists that despair. He holds on to his dignity – and he is at all times a very dignified man. The world is not against him, exactly. It’s just pretty much stopped caring about him. He hasn’t stopped caring – about the young woman he’s protecting and about the craft he’s spent his life perfecting. But caring too much can be its own brand of punishment, particularly when circumstances change and that attitude of caring is no longer valued by others.
Bit by bit, everything slips away.
Chomet, a Frenchman like Tati, tells his story with a Gallic lack of excessive sentimentality. Life is full of disappointments,” “The Illusionist” asserts. That’s the nature of existence. Have no illusions about that.
C’est la vie.
* * * *
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Cast: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
Running time: 1:20
Rating: PG; adult themes, smoking