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The Illusionist

Sylvain Chomet’s film worthy of its Oscar nomination

Feb. 15, 2011
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The Oscar-nominated animated film The Illusionist comes with an impressive pedigree. Filmmaker Sylvain Chomet previously directed The Triplets of Belleville, perhaps the most splendid animated feature not made by Pixar from the last decade. Brought to life by an international team of animators, The Illusionist is based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, the French director best remembered for such wonderfully dry, laconic comedies as Mon Oncle and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

A tender and touching exploration of life in the fading limelight, The Illusionist opens in Paris in 1959 and follows the travails of a stage magician on the skids. The magician, wearing too-short pants and a too-short jacket, tries to entertain a half-empty hall with the aid of his loving but disobedient white rabbit. The scattered applause says it’s time to move on. With a glimmer of hope in his heart, he crosses the Channel and is booked at a London theater to follow one of England’s plastic pop bands of the period. By the time he walks onstage, the screaming crowd has exited. No one remains but an old lady and her grandson.

Failure follows failure. The magician winds up in a remote Scottish village nestled on the rocky coast. He’s a hit at the local pub, where the overhead light bulb is still such a novelty that villagers switch it on and off for fun. But even here his days are numbered after the delivery of a gleaming Wurlitzer jukebox. Who needs the inexactitude of live performance when canned entertainment is available at the touch of a button?

Much of The Illusionist occurs at the magician’s next destination, Edinburgh, where he travels with the adolescent girl who sweeps the floor of the pub. Not unlike The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist is a moving, nostalgic look at the end of an era. The run-down hotel where the magician and the girl are staying is the refuge for a gaggle of ventriloquists and other vaudevillians whose careers are fading against the light of the television store down the block. Virtually though not entirely wordless, the film is filled with the ambient sound of voices, footsteps, rainfall and the low hum of passing cars in an age before automotive congestion. Each hand-drawn frame resembles a beautifully painted page from a children’s book and the motion of the characters within each frame tells the story without the need of dialogue.

The lives of the magician and the girl unfold in a mood of bright melancholy. Kindness is the theme running through The Illusionist’s depiction of unselfish love between generations, genders and even species. It’s a great film in its own right and a wonderful tribute to Tati, an artist whose films spoke louder than words.


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