March 1st, 2011

The Illusionist

Not to be confused with the 2006 movie starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, this is a new animated film (original title "L'illusionniste")based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati, the famous French comic actor, writer, and director.

This is a beautiful,sentimental, and melancholy story. Supposedly semi-autobiographical ("Tatischeff", the name of the main character, was Tati's birth name, and the character is drawn to look like him-), it is the story of a stage magician, set in the early 1960's. The man's career is withering as the music hall venues appropriate to his modest, close-up style of magic are closing due to the influence not only of technology like cinema, TV, and the jukebox, but because the style of entertainment people want is changing. Tatischeff has a couple of humiliating encounters with a Beatles-like Brit-pop band, "The Britoons", who can fill a house while the magician plays to crickets.

Scraping the barrel bottom for gigs, Tatischeff works at a party celebrating the electrification of a rural Scottish village, where he meets Alice, the maid-of-all-work at the inn where he stays. Although it's a common gloss on the plot to allege that she "believes the magic is real," I didn't so much get that from the action as that she is fascinated by the shy yet kindly illusionist and follows him as a light leading her out of her life of drudgery. When Tatischeff can't bring himself to send her home, the two of them head for Edinburg, and try to make a life amid the fading theatrical life of the great city.

Much of the movie deals with Tatischeff trying to find work and sustain himself while meeting Alice's Cinderella-like expectations, which is both funny and sad and works out to an intriguingly ambiguous ending.

The movie is both beautiful and subtle. The water-color renderings of English and Scottish landscapes are the equal of anything seen in Miyazaki, especially in the scenes of changing light. Character designs are fanciful caricatures, but not overtly grotesque. The animation of Tatischeff is remarkable, in that it tells a story in itself. The magician is very tall, with even larger hands and feet that seem clumsy. He holds himself very rigidly, and is inclined to startle when people approach. Nevertheless, his sleight-of-hand is wonderfully fluid and sure. It seems certain that this is the portrait of someone who was once a clumsy, lonely boy, who learned prestidigitation as a means to gain dexterity and "be popular"--something that obviously worked on the one hand but not on the other, but which did turn into an occupation. In addition, there is a scene in which Tatischeff enters a movie house where Tati's "Mon Oncle" is playing, and we briefly glimpse that the animation even moves like his author.

The setting is well observed, and the shabby show business hotel full of "types"--the dwarfs that run it; the Latin acrobats that bound up and down the stairs; the ventriloquist with the creepy dummy that looks like him, but who is harmless and nice; and the down-and-out clown who removes his whiteface to reveal his real "Emmet Kelly" sad face underneath.

Like the makers' "Triplets of Belleville," voice acting is hardly a factor, as most of the film is wordless, with only the occasional murmur, exclamation, or grunt as punctuation of the marvelously right-on track of music and sound effects.

Very highly recommended for fans of animation and of a good sentimental story.

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