The Illusionist

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February 16, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

The world of animation has always seemed unfortunately small. Granted, that’s referring to animation that gets seen by a sizable number of people. Although there are strongholds of the avant-garde, often hedged in nationalistic concerns such as the politico-surrealist works that one associates with the Eastern Bloc, only two countries hold a strong identity for international audiences. Those being the United States, with the likes of Disney, Pixar and TV productions such as The Simpsons, and Japan, who currently provide the other populist voice in the medium. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when big successes come from other avenues. In 2003, France’s Sylvain Chomet turned heads with his wonderfully bizarre Les Triplettes de Belleville (aka The Triplets of Belleville), a feature that offered a distinct alternative to the norm. Not content with that, Chomet offers film fans something even more remarkable with his latest feature, L’illusionniste. He offers us nothing less than one final hurrah for Jacques Tati, nearly thirty years after his death. That being said, it is a ‘hurrah’ hedged in melancholia, as only seems appropriate given the script’s origin.

Tati could perhaps best be described as a French equivalent to Charles Chaplin although such a comparison doesn’t really do justice to either man’s artistry. Trained in mime, he started his career in the various music halls of France before making a few short, comedic films in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1949 he graduated to directing and starring in his first feature Jour de fête, one of only six full length films he would complete within his lifetime. His unorthodox style was immediately apparent with carefully choreographed physical gags twinning with unusual jokes that could only be arrived at through the unique visual possibilities of cinema. As his career progressed Tati’s visual prowess grew ever more nuanced, finding full voice in Mon oncle before reaching its pinnacle with his remarkable 1967 masterpiece, Playtime. It was this film that would shape his later career as its comparatively massive budget was mostly bolstered by Tati’s own chequebook. When it failed commercially it bankrupted the star, a fate from which he never fully recovered.

L’illusionniste then, comes from a script Tati wrote in 1956 but never realised on screen. Semi-autobiographical, there has been some argument as to what exact elements in his life really inspired the film. Though passed onto Sophie Tatischeff, a daughter of Tati’s and a frequent collaborator in his later career, it has been claimed that the actual inspiration for the film was not her but Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, a child of an earlier relationship whom Tati never acknowledged. It’s certainly a bone of contention when reading the film, particularly as Chomet dedicates it to the late Sophie, but we’ll get to that in due course.

Beginning in France we are introduced to an illusionist known only as Tatischeff, Tati’s own birth-name. The character is immediately recognisable as a study of the man, perfectly replicating many of Tati’s own trademark mannerisms. Set in the late 1950s it is an era when the usual stars of music halls, clowns, ventriloquists, acrobats, and of course, illusionists/magicians like Tatischeff himself, are losing popularity to the upcoming surge of rock and roll music. With declining demand the illusionist is forced to work in increasingly rural and isolated venues, a reality that brings him to a remote village in Scotland. There he meets a young girl, Alice, who decides to travel with him to Edinburgh as he seeks more work. Divided by language, Tatischeff speaking only French while Alice knows only a few words of English and mainly speaks Scots Gaelic, the two form an unusual bond as he tries to buy her nice things while she cooks and cleans; bringing some degree of balance to his necessarily transient lifestyle. Providing a backdrop to this central relationship the film also allows us a view of several other performers, similarly struggling to make ends meet in world where their talents no longer pull in the crowds. A ventriloquist, a band of acrobats and a clown all find their worlds in upheaval alongside the illusionist.

Inevitably shades of Chaplin emerge but shades too of Tati’s previous work. Although the focus was very different, L’illusionniste serving almost as a counterpoint, it still brings to mind the focus on performer and audience that was highlighted in Tati’s final film, the Swedish television production Parade. While some1 have complained specifically because the film adopts some of the hallmarks of Tati’s direction—primarily the dominance of distant compositions with few close-ups—without fully replicating it; that seems to somewhat miss the larger story. After all, Chomet was not tasked with making a Tati film but rather with making his own film from Tati’s script. Through that synthesis there’s plenty to be enjoyed under the auspices of both authors. If anything, and it’s something to come back to, Chomet’s supervision has allowed us a film that is more personal about its given subject than Tati himself could ever have managed.

The film’s visual style largely eschews Chomet’s more typically exaggerated caricatures and backgrounds. L’illusionniste then, has a much more restrained look than previous works like Les Triplettes de Belleville or the short La vieille dame et les pigeons (The Old Lady and the Pigeons). Its depiction of Scotland and specifically Edinburgh uses plenty of genuine locations and maintains a painterly affection for its subject. Up close we’re treated to clean lines and detailed use of colour while, as the camera moves further out to survey the rugged landscape, we’re treated to broad washes of hue; a world composed in watercolour. It is an undeniably lovely looking film. That being said, we do get a few more outlandish caricatures as the film moves from dance-halls to garden parties to rural pubs; the foppish, preening boy-band that seem to be usurping the entertainment business from the old-guard being a real highlight.

Tatischeff himself is a lovingly recreated vision of Tati, mostly incorporating the gestures of his best known creation, the ineffable Monsieur Hulot. The only real change is that this time he moves without the trench coat and (mostly) without the umbrella too. His transition from mime to magic is easily achieved as the required movements are no less graceful and refined. In addition, through the nature of animation the film easily blurs the lines between his conjuring expertise and genuine magic, thus highlighting a core theme within the larger text. This cements the central relationship between Tatischeff and Alice. She is enraptured by his ability to conjure objects out of thin air, the problem being that she does not seem to realise that his powers are nothing more than sleight of hand.

She spots certain things in shop windows that she’d like and, taking the cue, Tatischeff later purchases them from his meagre savings and summons them for the girl, delighting her. It’s an unusual relationship at first, manifesting strangely like the objects that make up the illusionist’s act. It’s only as events progress that we realise they have adopted a sort of father/daughter connection, separated somehow for many years but now together. It has the mechanics of Chaplin and also the open-hearted vulnerability that allows such a dynamic to convince. More pointedly, we are left to examine the legitimacy of the relationship as it is built, even if innocently, on subterfuge.

It is this detail that dovetails us back to the script’s origin and to ongoing arguments about the film’s inspiration. Director Chomet has stated that he interpreted the script as a regretful Tati’s apology to his daughter Sophie Tatischeff for having spent so much time away from her, working on films2. On that note Chomet’s film concludes with a dedication to her memory3. This has provoked an angry reaction from Tati’s remaining heirs, the children of his first child, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel. Tati abandoned her and her mother during the Second World War, due largely to pressure from his sister; he never publicly acknowledged Helga Marie-Jeanne again despite her few attempts to make contact. Her children, Tati’s grandchildren, understand the script to have been an attempt by the director to finally come forward and apologise for his abandonment of their mother, a fact they have cemented in a series of lengthy letters4.

Poetically speaking, even given that it was Chomet who adapted and realised the film, it is the latter story that seems more powerfully given voice by the final film. It’s little surprise Tati never made the film himself; it was simply too painful a subject to assemble anywhere but on blank pages. Additionally, Tati didn’t even intend to play the central role himself. In that sense, an animated likeness seems a poetic solution for the final product.

This tension between the real and artificial culminates in a beautiful scene where Alice reads Tatischeff’s final farewell, or perhaps more correctly, confession, that informs her, “magicians do not exist.” They certainly don’t, but Chomet is quick to remind us, as Tati did in his own day, that a lack of magicians certainly can’t quell the reality of magic. One simply has to adjust their perspective to see it. Who needs the supernatural when the very nature of reality itself is so innately fascinating? Tati’s own cinema was singularly shaped by that idea. His framing and methods of seeing the world brought forth all kinds of details about society and its failings but, and this always remained enshrined, society was still beautiful because it was composed of people.

It’s this bittersweet reality that shapes the final film and reminds us once again of Tati’s own genius, that same genius that informs all the great artists of cinema. It’s certainly not something which comes without cost. His own life was far from perfect and he lived it with many regrets, some too large for him to ever surmount. The sadness in that is simply part of what fuels the day-to-day motions of our larger world and, as an artist, Tati could only bring himself to try and sublimate it into a screenplay rather than a real reconciliation with his estranged eldest daughter. The end result for us, as a detached audience, is a window into a part of Tati’s own life that he never could have brought to the screen himself. It leaves us with questions of how far we have right to intrude into the personal affairs of public figures, but then again, as is the strength of his art, Tati’s revelations are our own and they stand so strong that, even as Chomet shaped them according to his own interpretation, they still remain intact, bare and exposed within the final product.

In this sense the controversy that has surrounded the film is of strangely little import despite its highly personal nature. Chomet, guided by the strength of Tati’s own material, has crafted a film that understands the fallibility of man and so finds voice in us all. If dedicated to Sophie Tatischeff—or truly inspired by the abandonment of Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel—the film only further cements the pressures of a life devoted to art, emotional honesty and living with one’s own mistakes. The film is, as it has been pitched and much to the chagrin of Tati’s remaining heirs, “an ode to Tati” but it is also an acknowledgment of his fallibility. It is then a resolutely human film. A small masterpiece in a medium too often preoccupied with frivolity.

Although it’s sad that such a thing is required, hopefully L’illusionniste ‘s nomination for an Academy Award for ‘Best Animated Feature’ will bring it to a larger audience. In that category it will run side-by-side with far more commercial affairs and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking the award from Pixar and their Toy Story 3 on the night. Being honest, I’m torn with a hope that this film doesn’t win the award, as childish as that might sound. Its own inherent quality and value can’t help but render other plaudits redundant and indeed, almost tacky. Like Tati himself, a nomination5 is enough. In fact, as it so openly trades on the vulnerable joys of Chaplin we can realise he wasn’t really Oscar material either6. This film couldn’t be more different than its contemporaries; its animated nature holding a whole different relationship with the pith of its narrative. Here the potentialities of the format do not allow us escape from the real but instead, through graceful illustration, reinforce for us the real artistry that living requires, bringing both joy and sorrow.

1 Two notable examples being The New Yorker and Senses of Cinema.

2 A sentiment expressed, among many places, in this article.

3 Sadly, Sophie Tatischeff died of lung cancer in 2001, at only fifty-five years of age.

4 For reference, this is the full letter Richard McDonald, grandson of Tati, submitted to Roger Ebert in relation to the film. McDonald also discusses how Pierre Étaix was originally slated for the central role as the illusionist.

5 He received a 1956 nomination for ‘Best Writing, Story and Screenplay’ for the wonderful Les vacances de M. Hulot, his only personal recognition by that institution. Granted, Mon oncle secured a 1959 win for Best Foreign Picture but that Oscar went not to Tati but to France.

6 This isn’t quite true. Chaplin received an Oscar for ‘Best Music/Original Dramatic Score’, in competition, with Limelight. The caveat being that it was in 1973, some twenty years after the film’s original release. More pointedly it was also a year after they awarded him his second Honorary Oscar which could be interpreted as a thinly-veiled apology for offering him no support when, travelling for the premiere of the film in London, he was refused a re-entry visa and was effectively barred from the United States. The reason for all this being his suspected Soviet sympathies as he refused to play ball with the ongoing HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) investigations.

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