Monday, 23 August 2010

'The Illusionist' review: a slight and melancholy animation from a modern master...

Fans of Sylvain Chomet's surreal 2003 animated feature 'Belleville Rendez-vous' will not be surprised to find his follow-up, 'The Illusionist', is a melancholic, mostly silent tale with an old-fashioned sensibility and a penchant for physical comedy. What this latest feature does, however, is take Chomet's obvious Jacques Tati influence to a new extreme. Whereas 'Belleville Rendez-vous' was full of playful allusions to the celebrated comedy film-maker (such as a poster for 'Les Vacances de M. Hulot' - a gag he repeats here), 'The Illusionist' goes one step further with the titular character bearing Tati's real surname (Tatischeff), and aping his mannerisms and appearance. It is also, most importantly, based on a long-forgotten and previously un-filmed screenplay written by Tati himself. And so 'The Illusionist' is, in its quirky, surreal way, a slightly more grounded film than his first as it functions as a sort of loose biography of Tati's bittersweet relationship with his own daughter (the late Sophie Tatischeff - to whom the film is fittingly dedicated).

If you have ever left a movie derisively declaring that "nothing happened", then it is safe to say that 'The Illusionist' is not going to be your idea of a fun time. The "plot" is slight: set in the 1950's an aging magician finds his act no longer appeals to people in an age of rock n' roll and television. But when he plays a remote Scottish island he finds a new fan in the form of a young girl who comes to believe he is genuinely magical. Perhaps beguiled by the young girl's sincerity and good nature, or possibly just because he has found an appreciative audience, the magician takes the girl under his wing and, like Chaplin in 'City Lights', has to work menial jobs in secret in order to maintain his increasingly expensive illusions - lest the girl learn the truth. This is essentially it. But this is enough. It is a serene film which takes you across the Scottish countryside and into a beautifully realised picture of 1950's Edinburgh (the city where Chomet's Django Studios is actually based).

It is a film which you can relax and enjoy as it washes over you. It is calming and purely joyful - that is, at least until its poignant and sombre conclusion, which is pitched perfectly. Whilst it never caused me to well up in the way something like 'Up' did, it still provided much to think about. Perhaps it is a film that asks you to be more reflective than reactive. It certainly isn't shamelessly manipulative like 'Toy Story 3'. I wouldn't like to spoil the ending, but I'll just say that there is a bit of business involving a pencil at the film's climax which is on the level of genius. It is also nice to see another traditionally animated film in 2010.

I have nothing against computer-generated animated films. However, in the last decade they had come to supersede all other forms of animation. But now that Disney have returned to hand-drawn and good stop-frame films like 'Coraline' and 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' are being made, Chomet's film is another reason to be cheerful for fans of the art form. There is some distracting CGI in 'The Illusionist' that seems to harken back in early 90s Disney, notably the cars, trains and one ill-conceived aerial shot of Edinburgh, but generally it is one of the nicest looking animated films you will ever see. To say it is charming is to revert to a wet cliché, but it is exactly that. Especially in its loving detail, which includes an accurate reproduction of the inside of Edinburgh's own Cameo Picturehouse, among other things.

It is true that the characters are broad caricatures (much like they would have been in one of Tati's own films), with a be-kilted, drunken Scotsman, a fat opera-singer and a number of unflattering depictions of the teeth of British aristocratic stock, but there is no malice here. In fact there is great humanity in the film, which also depicts a number of other vaudevillian entertainers now tragically down on their luck, such as a suicidal clown and a homeless ventriloquist forced to pawn his dummy.

'The Illusionist' is not just light entertainment, but it is a poignant and mournful love letter to a long-dead world of light entertainment (reminiscent of another Chaplin feature: 'Limelight'). In recent years Pixar have lead the way in addressing the fears of aging, of loss and of growing obsolete, in films as diverse as 'The Incredibles', 'Finding Nemo' and, of course, 'Up'. But what is brave about Chomet's film is that he is prepared to end on that particular note of melancholia. Though with animation this beautiful, Chomet is certainly keeping the wonder and the magic of Jacques Tati alive.

'The Illusionist' is rated 'PG' by the BBFC and is currently playing across Picturehouse cinemas, including Brighton's Duke of York's.

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