If ever a film deserved the term 'whimsical' it's French animator Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to the eye-wateringly, teeth-grindingly, irritatingly whimsical Belleville Rendez-Vous. Not to be confused with the tricksy Ed Norton period thriller of the same name, The Illusionist is a film so steeped in whimsy it might inspire you to give amateur trepanning a go.
Set in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1950s, The Illusionist is a bitterweet (but mostly sweet) love-letter not only to the dying world of music hall but to the city of Edinburgh. Working from an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, Chomet's lovingly hand-drawn, old-school animation follows the Illusionist, a typically Tati-esque figure, an aging stage magician who finds his audiences dwindling as rock’n’roll takes the world by storm.
Packing his decidedly belligerent scene-stealing rabbit into his hat, he leaves Paris and heads out on the road, touring the far-flung corners of ’50s Scotland where he finds a surrogate daughter in a naive young woman who believes his conjuring tricks to be real magic. Together they travel to Edinburgh where he finds an agent, begins an extended engagement in a small theatre and they find lodgings in an eccentric, dilapidated hotel peopled by other variety show rejects; a drunken ventriloquist, a troupe of acrobats, a suicidal clown. But with audiences starting to dry up, the pair find themselves drifting apart as she’s increasingly seduced by the bright lights of the city…
Like much of Tati’s work and Chomet’s earlier Belleville Rendez-Vous, The Illusionist is a ‘silent’ film in so much as it’s virtually dialogue free (there’s the odd grunt and mutter), relying on Chomet’s ravishing visuals to tell it’s slight but affecting tale. While its theme of entertainers out of step with their age and rendered obsolete by changing audience tastes is particularly poignant (it is after all a 2D hand-drawn film in a world of 3D CGI cartoons) and its nostalgia for a simpler, bygone age understandable, The Illusionist never quite drowns in its own sentimentality, the air of melancholy that suffuses the film constantly undercut by the script’s droll, slow-burn humour.
Its depiction of Scotland may at times be as shortbread tin realistic as Powell & Pressburger’s “I Know Where I’m Going!” with steam trains chugging past mirror-like lakes, parties to celebrate the coming of electricity (and, it’s implied civilisation) to the Western Isles and comedy, drunken Scotsmen at every turn but Edinburgh has never been so lovingly or accurately rendered onscreen, Chomet perfectly capturing the brooding look of the city, its ever-changing light, its magical atmosphere, in ways that conventional, live action filmmaking never could.
If, in the end, the film is never quite as satisfying or as affecting as you feel it should be, blame Tati. The man was, after all, a mime artist so is it really a huge surprise if his script is a little light on characterisation? While it’s not going to set the arthouse world alight the way Bellville Rendez-Vous did a few years back, The Illusionist is a charming, swooningly romantic ode to the demise of variety entertainment and a defiant, refreshingly retro, visually sumptuous feast for the eyes.
Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet
English, French with English subtitles