Because it’s impossible to watch a film through the brain and sensibility of another, it’s hard for any diehard Jacques Tati fan (present company included) to guess at the experience of a non-Tati fan watching the wonderful, warm, and bittersweet animated film The Illusionist. One of the more charming items on the menu at the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the film—the latest from handmade animator Sylvain (The Triplets of Belleville) Chomet—no doubt has implicit appeal, with its shaggy-sweet tale of an aging magician on tour in a changing world, with a young woman in tow, embodying innocence bridging into experience.
But the film also sports an unusual and poignant backstory, as both a latter-day extension of the filmography of the late, great Tati (in his lanky, ambling, gently absurd Monsieur Hulot role), and the afterlife of animation. More tellingly, and touchingly, the film is based on an unmade script by Tati, which he reputedly wrote as a paean to his estranged daughter, whom he planned to feature in the film. In animated form, Tati’s impish, man-of-few-words charm comes to life, once removed, on the screen here; and a cinematic in-joke pops up late in the film, as our protagonist ducks into a movie theater where the 1958 Tati masterpiece Mon Oncle is screening—the one medium-leaping live-action moment in the film.
Beyond the strong links to Tati—the man, the myth, and the cinema genius—The Illusionist is another great example of Chomet’s power as a filmmaker. Here, he employs a labor-intensive but fascinating old-school animation style, in an age when ones and zeroes rule the game. Just as the film’s late-career protagonist is finding his magic act upstaged by rock ‘n’ roll and other modern distractions, Chomet’s art is proudly anachronistic, and all the more impressive for that fact.
As the tale works its way to a sweetly melancholic finale, we recognize the humanity and gravitas at work beneath the surfaces of the visuals and the human story at hand here.