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Illusionist, The (2010)
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Glorious eye candy, but somewhat hollow in the center."
4 stars

The Oscar-nominated "The Illusionist" is the latest in an odd, tiny subgenre of films imagining real-life directors as characters in the sorts of films they might've made. (2009's "Double Take," which envisioned Hitchcock in a Hitchcockian thriller, was another.) Tributes like these, of course, exist primarily out of film-geek love, as well as the sort of homage usually left to novels in which, say, Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle solve some mystery. If we can't have a new film by the long-dead French comedy master Jacques Tati ("M. Hulot's Holiday"), the rationale goes, we might as well embrace a tribute by French animator Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of Belleville").

Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, only directed a handful of films, though his work spanned decades (his first feature was released in 1949, his last in 1974). He gained his performing chops as a mime in pre-WWII music halls, and this experience seems to inform The Illusionist, which, we're told, Tati wrote in 1955 but never made; it was intended as a letter to his estranged daughter. The film itself certainly gets much of its emotional fuel from a father-daughter relationship between the titular magician drawn and animated as a Tati doppelganger and a young woman he meets in a Scottish pub. Romance is never possible between them; she is charmed by his sleight of hand, he is charmed by her innocence. She is young; the capacity for happiness hasn't been ground out of her yet.

There are some laughs in The Illusionist, but a lot of it is melancholic and somewhat self-pitying. The magician has to wander around looking for steady work (in one strange episode he winds up washing cars at a garage; in another he plies his trade in a shop window, making his employer's wares appear out of a hat), because he can't make consistent money performing illusions for increasingly sparse audiences. It's the 1950s, and rock music has invaded music halls; the Beatles-ish group in the movie is presented, rather meanly and homophobically, as a gaggle of giggling limp-wristed sissies. Meanwhile, all around the magician are similar old-school entertainers a clown, a ventriloquist who fall into despair, musing on suicide or pawning their props.

So the movie comes across as a vaguely bitter ode to how things used to be before modernism came and ruined everything. It's beautifully crafted, though. We forget at our peril how miraculous cel animation can be; an entire generation is growing up on the canned plastic of Gnomeo and Juliet and twenty other computer-animated romps just like it, and, to put it mildly, they don't all have the taste and ingenuity of a Pixar production. The Illusionist benefits from what I assume is some computer enhancement, but mostly we marvel at precisely drawn people in movements slapstick and subtle, sometimes both (the animation work on the young woman as she gets used to her new shoes is exemplary). The landscapes are gorgeous, the background characters are always doing something; it's a fully created world, and one well worth seeing on a big screen.

But the nostalgic sadness that suffuses this story which has been divorced somewhat from its painful source leaves us with little except how tragic it is when artists are outmoded. For an animator who sees multiplexes clotted with stuff like "Gnomeo and Juliet," this movie may be more autobiographical than even Tati's original script was.

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originally posted: 02/14/11 09:10:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2010 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/19/11 Magic Lovingly drawn, nostalgic and sweet comedy turns to brutal tragedy. 5 stars
7/17/11 Annie G Characters were stereotypes, and the plot was nearly non-existent. 3 stars
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  25-Dec-2010 (PG)
  DVD: 10-May-2011


  DVD: 10-May-2011

Directed by
  Sylvain Chomet

Written by
  Sylvain Chomet
  Jacques Tati

  Jean-Claude Donda
  Edith Rankin

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