Wednesday, 9 March 2011

L'illusionniste (2010) - Sylvain Chomet

No, not some French reimagining of the Edward Norton film that finally proved beyond all doubt that he can't do tricky accents. Rather this is a gentle animated take on a previously unfilmed script by Jacques Tati. Chomet rewrote the script himself, changing the setting from Prague to Edinburgh. Like Tati's best films this could easily be classified as a silent film, what little dialogue there is, being of little consequence.

The Illusionist is a slight tale on paper. Tatischeff (Tati's real name) is the illusionist of the title, unable to find work in his native Paris he travels to London to look for it instead. Here he finds that the once popular variety circuit has been taken over by British Rock 'n' Rollers. So he's packed off to the highlands of Scotland to earn a crust instead. It's here in a small Scottish village that he meets Alice, a young local girl who quickly becomes enamoured with him, convinced that his illusions are in fact real magic. She stows away with him and they head to Edinburgh. Upon arriving it becomes obvious that what was once one of the most popular nights out is fast heading for the skids, as Tatischeff takes on a variety of non variety jobs to make ends meet. 

So typically Tati in as much as it's that old world clashing with new world theme that crops up again and again in his work. The hotel our couple stay in is populated with other debris from the world of music hall, there is a suicidal clown, a creepy ventriloquist and best of all a trio of acrobats. We don't get to see any of these people perform on stage, what we do see however is them doing their act in the real world instead. Throughout the film we witness the window of the local pawnbrokers (Brown and Blair, nudge nudge, wink wink), filling up with various props from these characters acts. The sad thing is that each time we return they haven't been sold and their price has been reduced still further, just like the performers themselves no one wants them. In terms of mood and themes it reminded me of a couple of other films, mainly De Sica's Umberto D. with the main character fast realising that he is a relic, and that the world has moved on without him. 

The relationship between Tatischeff and Alice is like that of a father and daughter, very innocent, very old fashioned. This is enforced with the closing shot of Tatischeff holding a photo of Tati's real life daughter, Sophie. It's this air of melancholy that hangs over the film, that makes me begin to understand why this was never made by Tati. For a Tati film it's just too sad, I can't see how he would have managed to bring his light touch to this story.

Chomet, who not only wrote and directed but wrote the music too, manages to really capture Scotland and the harsh beauty that is in abundance there. It comes as no surprise to hear that he'd relocated from his native France to Edinburgh prior to embarking upon this film. He also clearly has a love of the great man too, just the animation of Tati alone is good enough to trick you into forgetting that it isn't him up there on the screen. I'm so glad that someone with his track record (Les Triplettes de Belleville) was given this project. Imagine this being CGI style animation, or even worse live action, it just wouldn't work.

As it stands this is a worthy addition to the Tati canon. It feels old fashioned both in style and pacing, and is filled with loads of lovely little touches, such as having a station porter be played by Tati too, since Tati regularly took on multiple background roles in his films. Best of all though is Tatischeff walking into a cinema showing Mon Oncle, thus seeing himself on screen and his own role in the downfall of music hall. How very post modern.

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