I loved Sylvain Chomet's first feature, The Triplets of Belleville. I thought it was one of the rare movies that fulfills the promise of animation, a promise so rarely kept by an industry that views animation as children's entertainment. It's one of those movies that I've inflicted on friends, usually to good responses all around. So believe me, no one was looking forward to his new movie, The Illusionist (2010) more than I was. I went into it expecting to love it, which was probably an unreasonable expectation, I admit, so it seems equally unreasonable for me to use my expectations as a reason for my discontent with the movie I finally saw.
This contains heavy spoilers, by the way. I can't speak to my discontent with The Illusionist without discussing the ending in detail. I don't think I can actually ruin the movie, but some people are sensitive about these things. You have been warned.
The Illusionist is adapted from an unfilmed screenplay by Jacques Tati. Presumably, Tati was unable to get the film made because it wasn't about his signature character, M. Hulot, but I don't know. I do know this, though: I don't care much for Tati. I can admire the obvious care that goes into his movies--the art of them, if you will--but Tati's movies tend to bore me. I don't laugh at them, which is a grievous fault in movies intended as comedies. I don't know that The Illusionist was intended as a comedy. It's awfully sad for a comedy. But it has comedic beats, and the central figure, based on Tati himself, has something of Chaplin to him, in addition to what the film takes from Tati's films and screen image, so it's probably intended as a comedy.
The story here follows a stage magician as his profession becomes obsolete. Whether it's the coming of television, the rise of rock and roll, or the all consuming dominance of the cinema, the world has found something else with which to occupy itself, and old-style stage performers, whether they be clowns or acrobats or ventriloquists or, indeed, magicians, are going out of style. The movie is set in the early 1960s. Jacques Tatischeff (Tati's given name) leaves the indifferent audiences of Paris for England, in search of ever shrinking audiences. In England, he encounters the rise of a Beatles-esque rock band whose encores to screaming fans crowd him off the stage, and a weddding gig in which his tricks with drinks attract the attention of a Scots pub owner who invites him to Scotland, where Tatischeff meets Alice, a girl who follows him to Edinburgh. Tatischeff dotes on Alice, and scrambles for ever diminishing paychecks and ever diminishing dignity in his work to give her the things she needs to blossom. The pair's neighbors at the run-down hotel are in their last extremity, but Tatischeff soldiers on, taking gigs as a department store gimmick and as a parking attendant to make ends meet. Eventually, Alice meets a young man, and Tatischeff's heart breaks a little. He leaves her some money and a note, and leaves her to her new man while he hops a train away from the city. The note says, "Magicians do not exist."
This last bit is a bitter pill for me to swallow.
As a formal cinematic experience, The Illusionist is everything that The Triplets of Belleville was. Hell, as an eye trained on the human condition, it might be a little bit more than that. It's heartbreakingly sad. The whole thing has an ambient melancholy that seeps into every nuanced piece of shtick and every shot of the film. It's a breathtakingly beautiful film, too, in which relatively grotesque and caricatured human characters (Alice and Jacques excepted) are placed against lush watercolored backgrounds. Anyone who looks at this film and claims that 2-d hand-drawn animation is passe has no soul. Seriously, they don't. I doubt they even cast reflections in mirrors. Oh, the movie employs digital animation. You can occasionally tell. But it employs it in the service of traditional animation. In any event, the Edinburgh of this city is one of the most beautiful pieces of un-real estate in movies, even though the filmmakers go out of their way to make it big and dingy at times.
I could gush about the visual pleasures to be had in The Illusionist for a good long time, and it's a movie that I'll almost certainly watch again for the sheer joy of looking at it. But, as I say, it's a movie that I don't love, for a lot of the reasons that I don't love Tati's movies. But not only those. I think the deal-breaker for me was the note at the end of the movie. "Magicians do not exist," it says. A great deal of the movie is about wonderment leaving the world. It's about modernity reducing small scale human arts like legerdemain to complete insignificance. I'm almost willing to group this with those disillusioned French films that seem hellbent on denying an audience the pleasures for which they go to the movies, though there are enough of those here to convince me to stop short. Indeed, the movie itself seems to back away from its thesis in a small bit of business at the end, when Tatischeff performs a small illusion for a little girl on a train, but it's not enough to negate the way the movie arranges its protagonist's existential insignificance. Ultimately, I think my moviegoing companion was right when he turned to me after the movie and said that it seemed deeply wrong to frame a movie about wonderment draining from the world in an idiom and, indeed, an object dedicated to that very wonderment.