Sylvan Chomet (director of “The Triplets of Belleville”) took a story and original screenplay by Jacques Tati, adapted its Czechoslovakian location to Scotland, and gave us “The Illusionist.”
“The Illusionist” is a melancholy film. The illusionist of the title is fading out of time. He has lost his audience in Paris, and we travel with him past the White Cliffs of Dover to London. The time of the story is the late 1950s, with early rock-n-rollers sharing the stage – the house, overflowing with young people, is rocking for the band. When the illusionist finally goes on for his act, most of the audience is gone. I wondered if the theme of the film would be that rock-and-roll killed everything else around. The rock-n-rollers are hilarious counterpoint to the somber, staid illusionist, whose tricks are as sad and tired as he is. Even his rabbit does not want to be there.
We follow the lonely illusionist on a long northbound train ride from King’s Cross Station, so I wondered if he was heading to Hogwarts. He passes the general area and goes ever farther north, to the Hebrides, where he debarks the train and rides a boat then a jeep past sheep and cows to a magical hilltop village from an even earlier time – although they do have a jukebox. Here the people work hard but appear awfully happy – many of them are quite drunk, but happy drunk. The illusionist, hired to perform at the local pub, receives his very best reception so far. A young chambermaid, Alice, is amazed by the illusionist’s tricks, which she thinks are real. She cleans his clothes, going beyond her responsibilities. When she trips over her shoes, the sole detached from the upper, he buys her a new pair of red MaryJanes. This is it for her. When he leaves for his next gig, she follows him.
They behave as somewhat aloof father and daughter and live in a theatrical hotel in Edinburgh -- she gets the bedroom, he gets the couch. The illusionist works to support the two, including upgrading Alice’s wardrobe to thoroughly impractical dresses and shoes. The man keeps working and working at any job, as the market for magical acts faces extinction. People in the theatrical hotel disappear one by one – first the mannequin, then its ventriloquist, the acrobats, the clown. It’s fascinating and terribly sad.
The artwork is magnificent, the “lighting” moving time forward endlessly, the softness of times past making it all look sweet, and naïve. When the girl grows up and finds a beau, the illusionist moves on, leaving her to find her life, and telling her that there is no such thing as magic.
While I wondered at the beautiful, slow, profound story-telling, I found myself, on occasion, wishing something would happen, wishing Tati or Chomet had made another choice here, or another choice there. That the young girl would be something slightly magical herself, and not so drably realistic. But this is a story of life, in all its loneliness and disappointments. The film includes chuckles, but is not sweetly or sharply amusing as one might have expected.
If you’re depressed, do not see this movie. “The Illusionist” is an extraordinary piece of animation telling a dolorous tale of time passing.
~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer…I need to play with the cats to cheer up!