Nothing Up His Sleeve But a Broken Heart
There are plenty of lofty, critic-y words that I could use to describe Sylvain Chomet's exquisite, enchanting, perfectly rendered (see?) animated feature, The Illusionist. I've been very fortunate this week to have spent a few hours frolicking in the virtual, watercolor worlds of Chomet's Europe and Anderson and Hall's Hundred Acre Wood--and the thought of slinking back to the theatre for another round of low-IQ, 3D, CG summer blockbuster is almost too much to bear.
The Illusionist might be for everyone, but convincing everyone to give it a chance is a hard sell. It's a mostly silent, pantomimed, 1950s French period piece about an elderly magician's struggle to find relevance and love in a world that's actively casting off his kind. What little dialogue there is comes in the form of vaguely European-sounding grunts and slurred mumbles, and the award for "Most Thrilling Scene" is a toss-up between a shot of a train moving through the French countryside and a bit where the magician waits backstage to follow an effeminate rock quartet.
If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, I challenge you to watch the first ten minutes of this film. Chomet, working from a lost screenplay by renowned French mime, Jacques Tati, plunges us into a rainy, romantic, mid-century Paris, where the art of practical illusion and traditional entertainment are buckling under the gaudy, spoon-fed gloss of rock music and television. We meet Tatischeff (Jean-Claude Donda), the magician, as he performs rabbit-from-the-hat tricks for sparse crowds. He travels from place to place, taking whatever meager jobs he's offered. A stint at a wedding in France leads to a gig in a small Scottish village, where he meets Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a young girl who believes him to be a true wizard.
Alice follows Tatischeff to the big city, taking up with him in a modest apartment building occupied by other performers--among them, a mime, a ventriloquist, and a trio of peppy acrobats. Alice is amazed by the lights, sounds and bustle of urban living, as well as the elegant fashions she sees in boutique windows. Without her knowing, Tatischeff spends all of his performance money on clothes for Alice, producing them for her seemingly out of thin air. One night, she sneaks into his dressing room and discovers a pair of white high heels inside a gift box. She claims them right away, and Tatischeff doesn't say a thing.
Eventually, Tatischeff has to take odd jobs to support himself, his charge, and her expensive tastes. But his skills as a magician do him little good at cleaning cars, or doing anything except trying to delight diminishing audiences. As he works night and day to make ends meet, Alice sits bored in their apartment. One morning, she spies a handsome, young man across the courtyard, reading a book. They meet up and hit it off; and though her relationship with Tatischeff was never more than that of a surrogate father/daughter bond, Alice's courtship of the scholarly stud feels like a betrayal.
It's here that The Illusionist plunges from Wistful Slice of Nostalgia into Depressing Meditation on Aging. I won't ruin the ending, but I will say that I was glad that Tatischeff got a glimpse of what I saw in Alice early on. Though it could be argued that she's just extremely naive--and not a gold-digger--there's nothing about her behavior that suggest she's a good person. She has the self-involvement of a five-year-old, though she appears to be anywhere from twelve to eighteen years of age.
She exhibits no sense of loyalty, modesty, or decency--but it's easy to see how Tatischeff could have read her constantly smiling face as being that of a well-mannered, sweet girl (The "naive" option is more disturbing--as it suggests she grew up in an unbelievably sheltered community that raises its children to believe that stage-magic is real and that it's okay to essentially elope with a traveling illusionist. Which I understand; but when the village gets its first taste of a jukebox, why isn't there a violent uprising against the singing demons inside?).
That's my only minor gripe about a movie that I adore to death. I rarely see films where the way in which the story is told is more important than the story itself. I'm new to European animation, so please forgive me when I say that The Illusionist is unlike any other animated feature I've experienced. The most noticeable difference is the fact that the characters and the backgrounds work together seamlessly. Often in 2D animation, as with Winnie the Pooh, the characters will be rendered in a much more vivid style than their painted environments. The separation often takes a moment or two to get used to, as the characters often appear to be Colorforms. In The Illusionist, there is no distinction between environment and inhabitant, which creates as believable and rich a world as any of Pixar's CGI creations.
Okay, I lied. Speaking of CGI, a couple of details distracted me during the movie. While 99% of the movie appears to have been hand-drawn and painted, there are a few instances where 3D-modeled cars and trains pop up, mapped to look like the rest of the film. These vehicles move, for the most part unnaturally, compared with the fluidity of the other objects in The Illusionist. I was initially let down by this discovery, but I realized that drawing a realistic train crossing the French countryside in perspective by hand is probably a ridiculous undertaking that could have delayed the movie's release by a couple years (spitballing here). So, no, it's not perfect.
But it is an imperfect masterpiece (To quote da Vinci, "Art is never finished, only abandoned"). The character animation has to be seen to be believed. Even the most exaggerated, cartoonish freaks move with a hyper-naturalism that looks like a flip-book of Alex Ross' life-drawing sketches. The people of Chomet's Europe are as real as any "real" actors you've ever watched on-screen, both physically and emotionally. The Illusionist is at once joyful and sorrowful, an ode to the past and a concession to the future. It's the rare kind of escapism that provides a genuine jolt after dropping you back into the real world.