The Illusionist is Sylvain Chomet’s long-awaited follow up to The Triplets of Belleville, based on a controversially unproduced script written by French comic Jacques Tati and released in 2010. It was supposedly written as a personal letter to his daughter, though whether that daughter is Sophie Tatischeff, or Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, an illegitimate daughter he abandoned, is the source of much debate.
Much like Belleville, the film is presented in Chomet’s signature watercolour style, inhabited by his trademark physically exaggerated characters, and told essentially without dialogue (people communicate mainly through heavily-accented sounds that are mostly unintelligible, apart from the odd word of clarity), the film is beautiful to behold, both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Set in 1959, the film follows Tatischeff (essentially an animated version of Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character), a Parisian magician who is finding little appreciation for his craft in his native city, so ups sticks across the Channel to London. Upon arriving he gets himself a gig in a small theatre, performing after a suited-and-booted rock ‘n’ roll band with gravity defying bouffant haircuts called ‘Billy Boy and the Britoons’.
Tatischeff waiting in the wings preparing his props is classic Tati visual comedy; he stuffs his aggressive white rabbit (seriously, he’s so cross, even angrier than the one in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) into his top hat, tucks an entire umbrella into his suit jacket, where it seemingly vanishes, then lights a whole pack of cigarettes and casually places them back in his pocket – Chomet often uses the medium to his advantage to create brilliantly absurd visual jokes of this nature. However, Billy Boy is intent on giving the crowd what they want, and after seemingly endless encores, Tatischeff goes out to perform to nobody but a young boy and his grandmother; it seems audiences don’t care for illusions any longer.
Following a chance encounter with a friendly drunk Scotsman, Tatischeff finds himself on a remote Hebridean island. After the warm-up act of a newly installed lightbulb, Tatischeff and his routine receive the best reception he’s had in a while: the little smile he allows himself when he finishes suggests it’s been a while. However, the jukebox brought out after him, playing Tatischeff’s least favourite rock ‘n’ roll band, is met with even more rapturous applause: even on this remote isle, modernity cannot be outrun.
He does, however, pick up a pair of new biggest fans during his stay on the island, namely the barman’s children, Alice and her little brother. He performs some simple illusions for the two of them, impressing Alice in particular. Noticing she’s wearing a pair of tatty old boots, he uses some of his earnings from his show to buy her a new pair of red shoes, and seemingly produces them out of thin air when he gives them to her.
Her naïveté, utter lack of understanding of the concept of money, and the language barrier between the two combine to lead her to believe he possesses genuine magical powers, and can simply produce anything he desires from thin air, such as the red shoes, or her ferry ticket when she tags along with him when he moves on to Edinburgh. Something, however, compels him to care for her despite his clear lack of success, and funds… The sad irony of Tatischeff’s constant monetary issues is that if he went to Edinburgh during the summer to ply his trade in this day and age, he would almost certainly do incredibly well for himself. Unfortunately the Fringe Festival wasn’t the month-long behemoth in 1959 that it is nowadays, so performing street illusions would not have been an option.
The main body of the film is comprised of the events in Edinburgh, so I’ll say no more about the plot. The city, however, has never looked more beautiful on screen. Tati originally envisioned the film being set in Prague (another very beautiful city), but Chomet relocated it to Edinburgh, his adopted home, and the love he clearly has for the place flows from every frame. It’s just gorgeous. It’s also very accurate in its recreation; anyone who has visited Edinburgh will enjoy recognising a lot of familiar landmarks, including an important piece of Scottish cinema history, the now 100-year-old Cameo cinema.
Controversial family politics aside, The Illusionist is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, both in terms of animation and storytelling that will stick with you for a long time. The relationship built between such an unusual pair, essentially without words, is a truly impressive feat. As he demonstrated in The Triplets of Belleville seven years before, Chomet knows how to pluck at the heartstrings and the ten-minute-long sequence at the end of the film will make you cry, guaranteed. And stick around after the credits stop rolling for a second, it’s worth it.