FILM REVIEW: The Illusionist (2010)

The Illusionist (France/ UK, 2010)
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Starring Jean-Claude Donda, Edith Watkin

It’s always a shame when directors fail to live up to their initial promise. No manner how angry one might feel when watching Southland Tales, the deepest feeling one has is disappointment, compounded by the knowledge of just how good Richard Kelly was when he made Donnie Darko all those years ago. Sylvain Chomet has things just as tough: by anyone’s standards, Belleville Rendezvous is a hard act to follow.Fortunately for us, Chomet’s difficult second album is not an exercise in cinematic hara-kiri. Most of the magic and charm that made his debut such a leftfield gem remains in abundance, combined as before with painstakingly beautiful visuals and inventive, quirky animation. While not quite on a par with his debut, it is still an enthrallingly tragicomic story which is certain to stand the test of time.

Like Belleville before it, the comedic style and delivery of The Illusionist are rooted in the work of Jacques Tati. There is very little dialogue and the characters are physically exaggerated so that we understand their role and occupation without resorting to dull exposition. In this film, however, the connection to Tati is even stronger, since The Illusionist was written by Tati as an olive branch to his estranged eldest daughter. Tati also appears briefly in one scene when our main character wanders into a cinema during a showing of Mon Oncle.A little bit of Tati goes an awfully long way, but the film does not wholly rely on the audience having foreknowledge of his back catalogue. You do not need to recognise all the references both in the story and the characterisations to appreciate the film’s impeccable craft and emotional heart. Beneath all the gushing tributes, The Illusionist is a bittersweet film about the decline of the music hall and light entertainment. Much like The Entertainer fifty years ago, this message is conveyed through the emotional and financial struggles of a once-great man. But instead of displaying bitterness as he takes his last bows, the illusionist seems more resigned to his fate.

The early section of the film sees Tatischeff (as he is advertised) plying his trade at a succession of venues. As time moves on both his act and the venues get smaller and smaller, until he is reduced to performing in a noisy pub in the wilds of Scotland. These early scenes contain many hilarious examples of Chomet’s talent for parody and caricature. The four-piece rock-and-roll band is a great piss-take of The Crickets and The Beatles, right down to the drummer who looks exactly like Ringo Starr. Likewise the female opera singer at the garden party wobbles her way through Wagner in such an over-the-top manner that you can’t help but burst out laughing.The film shares with Belleville a series of quirky animals which appear to have entire and distinct personalities whilst doing very little on screen. The obese Labrador who barks at trains is replaced here by an irritable rabbit who bites anyone who tries to be too friendly. Characters like this and the sheep who turn up all over Scotland provide pleasant running jokes that keep you grinning in the quieter moments. One of the funniest moments in the film is when Tatischeff returns to the flat and thinks the girl has turned his rabbit into a stew; he picks nervously at his food, until finally the animal reappears with a mouth full of sausages.At the heart of The Illusionist, however, is the relationship between the ageing illusionist and the young Scottish girl who genuinely believes that he can conjure anything out of thin air. Chomet has likened their relationship to that between a father and daughter, one which involves maturity on both sides and ends ultimately in some form of cathartic separation. The precise age gap between the characters is never established, but the film never attempts to wander into more uncomfortable, romantic territory. Think of it as Three Colours: Red with the age gap of Harold and Maude.

Within this relationship, however, lies one of the problems with the film. In Belleville, the initial sections featured all the characters speaking in one language; the rules and styles of communication were set up so that when the story shifted to America, it was easy to read into all the movements. In The Illusionist the dialogue is still minimal but there is a language barrier between the characters which is never properly addressed. The Illusionist only speaks French and the girl only speaks English (well, garbled Gallic syllables), and yet somehow they understand each other. Communicating through gesture is fine, but this device is inconsistent, especially considering the ending involving the note (more on that later).The visuals in The Illusionist are a natural continuation of Chomet’s previous work. There is the same incredible attention to detail, with every frame feeling hand-crafted with perfect composition. One of the reasons the film took nearly five years to make is that Chomet could not find enough British artists who could replicate his high standard – a criticism he reiterated in interviews. The colour palette is a beautiful blend of faded reds and pinks with darker tones, and the night scenes in Edinburgh are spectacular. Most impressive is the manner in which Chomet captures moving water; it looks so naturalistic you’d swear he’d intercut actual footage of the River Forth.The film is deliberately nostalgic, depicting a time and a place which is rooted more in imagination than reality. The difference is that Belleville was very much a love letter to Chomet’s home nation of France; watching it in England, you could forgive all the shots of fat Americans and beret-wearing Frenchmen rolling their own fags. Watching The Illusionist is more problematic since his vision of Edinburgh teeters between charmingly unique and annoyingly picture-postcard. We accept the architecture and aerial shots with open arms, but when he starts filling the roads with nothing but black cabs and red buses, we start to get suspicious.Many films which deal with magic approach their subject matter through the prism of faith, likening spirituality to the suspension of disbelief needed to make a trick work. Even something as dark and complex as The Prestige has an element of faith involved: Hugh Jackman’s character spends the film searching for that magic moment when the audience believe in that which seems to be impossible.

The Illusionist is closest in its treatment of this to Whistle Down the Wind, which ends with the central character’s faith being shattered by events beyond her control. The ending of The Illusionist is heartbreaking, as the old man slowly but surely leaves his livelihood behind. The scene where he releases the rabbit into the wild will have you in tears, as will the closing shots of the train leaving Edinburgh. Having built up such a level of bonhomie between the characters, it is a sudden change of mood. But it is the only way such a film could end, doing justice to the subject matter and embracing the pathos of silent comedy.The Illusionist is a fine film on its own account and a very solid follow-up to Belleville Rendezvous. It has a number of problems which it fails to fully address, and there is always the danger that the film’s quirkiness will become overbearing. But in its favour it is beautiful to look at, has genuinely rounded characters and has a story which is both enriching and heartbreaking. It is the Pulp Fiction to Belleville’s Reservoir Dogs, and both works hint at better things to come.

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: A solid sophomoric effort


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