Everyone, myself included, seems to mistake the beautiful French animation film ‘The Illusionist’ for another movie with the same title that was released back in 2006. I didn’t realise it was a new film until I saw the trailer on another Sony Pictures Classics disc. I was immediately entranced by the elegant look of the animation. It had a very delicate style that differentiated it from the many ‘cartoons’ that fill seats in the mass market family entertainment slots.
‘The Illusionist’ to which I refer is the picture, directed by Sylvain Chomet, that was nominated for the Best Animated Feature at the 2011 Academy Awards. The same director had given us ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ back in 2003. Sound a bit too high brow for you? Don’t kid yourself. It’s a beautiful little film with artwork to die for and a very touching story.
‘The Illusionist’ is being released on American Region A locked Blu-ray, but we Brits will have to make do with only a DVD version for some strange reason. The same thing happened to ‘Made in Dagenham’ recently and it was well worth seeing in the High Definition format too. You really need to watch ‘The Illusionist’ in all its 1080p glory as it just looks so wonderful.
‘The Illusionist’ takes us back to Paris in 1959 - an era when variety artistes travelled the length of the country, performing in Music Halls, pubs and clubs. The performers stayed in stage ‘digs’ and lived out of a suitcase as they moved from town to town. This nomadic lifestyle is captured nicely as the magician catches trains to take him to his next venue. We see him follow the same routine at several locations. He arrives at the theatre, produces his publicity material (or bill poster), does his performance then returns to his lodgings. At one venue we see the other ‘turns’ including an aging clown and a ventriloquist as well as an up and coming Rock-n-Roll band – signifying change.
Tatischeff, the titular Illusionist, has seen better days and he takes whatever work he can find, often requiring him to travel great distances. We see him start out in France then travel to Scotland and spend a considerable time in Edinburgh. It’s in the Scottish Highlands that he meets a young girl, Alice, who is acting as a housemaid in his lodgings, when she accidentally kicks over her bucket of water. A friendship strikes up and when he moves on to Edinburgh she follows him – then ends up sharing his accommodation. This is a caring father/daughter relationship with Tatischeff buying her nice new clothes and she, in turn, cooking and cleaning for him. There’s a nice juxtaposition of an ageing performer nearing the end of his career while the young girl is just on the brink of womanhood. Not only do we have change occurring in their lives, but we also witness the demise of the Music Hall as technology and Television begins to rob it of its audience. Probably the most impactful and telling visual is where we see the ventriloquist’s dummy in the window of a pawn shop. In order to continue to provide for Alice, Tatischeff takes on various jobs in between performances. They range from performing magic tricks in a shop window to working in an all night garage
This is no brash, musical number laden, kiddie pleaser. What we have here is a very gentle piece with heart. The script was written by none other than Jacques Tati, famous for the Monsieur Hulot character and the film ‘Mon Oncle’ – which we see playing in a small cinema in Edinburgh. Tatischeff was, in fact, Jacques Tati’s real name and the Illusionist bears a strong resemblance to his Monsieur Hulot character.
The film contains some nice touches. As Tatischeff and Alice sit outside a restaurant, we see on the menu on the wall behind them that old Scots favourite (or so others would have you believe), deep fried chocolate bar. I guess they didn’t want to mention the maker by name, but it raised a smile. One of the best running gags is when the magician is performing on stage and pulls a white rabbit out of his hat. Unfortunately the rabbit is something of a biter and nips the fingers of a few who venture too close. Well, you try having your ears pulled every night for a summer season. It’d make you want to bite too!
The wide shots of the animated Edinburgh have a beauty that is reminiscent of many watercolours of the city that you would find in art galleries. They capture the freshness and familiarity of the city. Waverley railway station is there, as is the Castle and Jenners’ department store. It’s a real homage to the Scottish capital.
Like many a live action Jacques Tati film, hardly a word is spoken with the universal language of gesture being used to communicate with a wide audience. The humour is there, but no so much the huge belly laugh – there’s more of a constant smile throughout. You watch it because you care for the two characters, although you suspect that there may be some sadness to come. Don’t worry, this isn’t a weepie (leave that to ‘Lassie Come Home’) it’s more of a poignant tale that celebrates the passing of an era. It’s generally a very kind film, from the delicate tinkling of the music to the genteel manners of ‘The Illusionist’.
This is one film that was sold honestly by its theatrical trailer – or rather, the film sold itself. I’m generally quite cynical about such things as it’s their job to make the movie look good and I’ve been suckered on many an occasion. This time, there was no mis-selling and I’m really glad that the trailer persuaded me to see ‘The Illusionist’ on Blu-ray. While the film undoubtedly has the ‘Ahhh’ factor, it does not leave you feeling that someone has had their mucky fingers in among your heartstrings. It’s a simple story, well told and with great charm. Take a look yourself. It’s no illusion, it’s real magic!
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