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With: (voices) Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil, Raymond Mearns, James T. Muir, Tom Urie, Paul Bandey
Written by: Sylvain Chomet, based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati
Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 90
Date: 02/16/2010

The Illusionist (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Impractical Magic

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While he was making his terrific film The Triplets of Belleville (2003), animator Sylvain Chomet approached the Jacques Tati estate for permission to use a clip of Tati's Jour de Fete (1948) in one sequence. That contact sparked a working relationship; Tati's daughter Sophie gave Chomet Tati's unproduced script of The Illusionist. It made perfect sense: Tati's character Mr. Hulot could be resurrected in the form of a cartoon. No voice impersonation would be necessary (though Jean-Claude Donda provides Tati's grunts, mumbles and musings), and the rest is all right there on paper and in Tati's finished films.

It's easy to see why Tati never filmed this script. On the one hand, it's a sweet tribute to a daughter, but it's also quite bittersweet, heartbreaking and more than a little depressing. In this film, Hulot is re-cast as "Tatischeff" (Tati's birth name), an illusionist in 1950s-era Europe. (Tati's 1958 film Mon Oncle is playing in one movie house.) He finds that his skills are less and less impressive in an age of rock 'n' roll, and he finds himself working smaller and smaller houses, or on the odd end of an already-packed bill.

For one show, he travels to a remote village near Scotland, where electricity is just arriving for the first time. The Illusionist's show is upstaged by the flicking of a light bulb, but one ragtag teen girl, Alice (voiced by Eilidh Rankin), is fascinated by his tricks, believing that he is performing them for real. He "conjures" some nice new shoes to replace her torn ones, and she decides to run away to join him on the road. The Illusionist comes to love the girl, but she begins to expect more and more lavish gifts. Eventually, he sacrifices everything for her, and she leaves his side for the love of a young man her own age.

It sounds rather dreary, but of course, the film contains plenty of warm humor; oddball characters creep around the foregrounds and backgrounds, and a shifty, bitey rabbit provides some entertainment as well. However, judging from the similarity to The Triplets of Belleville, it's not too difficult to see that these jokes are more from Chomet's sensibility than from Tati's. There's very little sense of Tati's view of the universe, and the way that vast spaces and various objects and buildings can conspire against man, or at least make him look rather ridiculous. Chomet's palette is small and quaint; when The Illusionist uses a rolling clothing rack to hide behind, nothing comes of it. There's a kind of attempt at a joke, but definitely no commentary is made on the clothes or the rack.

There's more, too. Most accounts are simply assuming that Tati wrote this story as a tribute to his daughter Sophie, who gave the script to Chomet. But Tati had two daughters. He apparently abandoned an older one, Helga, during a rough time in his life, and they remained estranged. It has been suggested that Tati wrote this for Helga, rather than for Sophie, although a more emotionally complex combination is also possible. Regardless, while Chomet's film comes with a certain amount of pain, it doesn't really do justice to the story-behind-the-story. This is not to say that The Illusionist is bad -- I was quite taken by its small, quiet rhythms -- but it should not be confused with a Tati film.

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