Sylvain Chomet probably never thought, when he used a quick clip of Jacques Tati’s first film (Jour de fête, 1949) in his Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville, that he’d be enshrined with the incredible task of bringing to life an unproduced screenplay from Tati himself. With the express permission from Tati’s only living daughter, Chomet set forth on animating ‘The Illusionist,’ a tale set in France and Scotland in 1959 about a late in life magician finding himself in a changing world of entertainment.
The Illusionist Tatischeff (Tati’s original last name before he shortened it), an ungainly and maladroit fellow, is finding it hard to fill a house for his simple ‘rabbit out of the hat’ magicianry. Emerging rock stars are taking his place and he must take more and more odd and odder jobs and venues. On a gig on a small isle off Scotland he meets a young girl named Alice whom he takes a shine to, and she to him. She scrubs the floors and has worn-out shoes. Lonely, The Illusionist finds comfort in being able to provide small trinkets of affection through the guise of magic, at which she marvels and is thankful. So appreciative of her enthusiasm, he continues to provide her with more and more lavish gifts and she, although seemingly unintentionally, becomes more and more demanding. Not wanting to break the illusion for her, he takes secret jobs in the middle of the night (including a rather funny rendezvous at a car mechanic where he is again met with a very modern change of world pace via a Chevy Bel Air) to keep himself from going into ruin.
There is such a wonderful sense of both melancholy and whimsy in this film. It’s amusing to see The Illusionist appear for the Scottish folk in bright magenta while the rest of the color palette extends to four shades of brown. The classic 2D animation style is warm and comfortable and evokes the Golden Age of Disney classics like One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The combination of muted backgrounds and loving details is so familiar it’s impossible not to be enchanted. It’s also a much more subdued film than Triplets (thankfully) and its almost total lack of dialogue (save a few words in English and some easy French phrases) lets the visuals tell the story in a delicate yet dramatically narrative way. Yet the film again still finds room for a wonderfully cheeky moment in which The Illusionist, hiding from Alice, ducks into a movie theater showing Tati’s own Mon Oncle. They have a brief moment where they are practically mirroring each other’s behavior and it’s a delight.
As Alice continues to get older, it’s clear her fascination with The Illusionist’s magic is wearing off. She longs for more than a father-daughter relationship and finds that in a handsome neighbor. Even The Illusionist’s relationship with his chubby, feisty rabbit is in its twilight (that realization and outcome is gorgeously felt and represented) and it becomes very clear that even late in life he has grown. A brief exchange with a little girl on a train provides volumes of information on remorse, estrangement and learning to let go.