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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Illusionist


Famous French filmmaker Jacques Tati has been dead for twenty-eight years. His last film was the 1978 short, Forza Bastia. Yet like many enduring artists, he doesn't feel gone. Maybe because his masterpieces, My Uncle and Playtime haven't aged a bit since their 1958 and 1967 releases. Perhaps because his directing style is so unique and exciting it can still be enjoyed by every new generation. (And his famous character Mr. Hulot is chilling with Chaplin's The Little Tramp and Harpo Marx in the elite gang of legendary cinematic pantomimes). Whatever the case, Tati has been resurrected in 2010 -- at least in likeness and spirit -- for the wonderful French animated film, The Illusionist.

Directed by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) and based on an original screenplay by Tati himself, The Illusionist tells the melancholic tale of a slight-of-hand magician named Tatischeff. He lives in 1959 Paris and times are changing. The demand for vaudeville entertainers, and especially magicians, is dwindling in the modern age of high fashion, rock and roll, and television. With France a dry well of opportunities, Tatischeff -- poor and workless -- hits the road in search of greener pastures. He ends up in the breathtaking mountains and lochs of Scotland. The protagonist Tatischeff is clearly an animated version of Tati's alter ego, Mr. Hulot -- he has Hulot's tall frame and perfect posture and dresses in his usual grey suit, trench coat, and fedora. He walks with Hulot's signature long strides and polished sense of purpose. Like Chaplin, Hulot's whole persona seemed to emit a kind of goofball pride or clownish elegance. (Both the Little Tramp and Hulot wanted to be bigger than they were, dressed like it, and were oblivious to their sad realities).

Of course any Tati fan knows that his films are typically light on plot and heavy on gorgeously constructed mis-en-scene. The small Scottish village where Tatischeff performs for peanuts is a beautiful, fog-filled island dreamscape, only accessible by boat. The Inn where he stays sits snug between rolling green hills of a mystical and otherworldly beauty. The residents are a drunken and frolicking lot of celtics who marvel more at the magic of a simple lightbulb than Tatischeff's illusions, but he is -- in the spirit of Hulot -- mild mannered and courteous to everyone he meets. And when a teenage servant girl named Alice latches onto him, the magician kindly brings her along to his next gig in Edinburgh. Though sadly, Edinburgh is a major modern city with no place for old-timers like Tatischeff, and his hotel, a place called The Big Joe Hotel, is rife with other misplaced clowns, ventriloquists, and acrobats also searching for purpose. These other vaudevillians give the story a sense of whimsey as well as a cold sense of dissociation. Of course Tati did begin his showbiz career as a vaudeville comedian and perhaps witnessed the plight of his contemporaries in the post-war era.

A little like Ozu's Tokyo Story or Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, Tati's original story was about a culture in transition -- an emerging contemporary society welcoming the young while it casts out the old. Alice, that country girl and tag-along, gets absorbed rather easily into this trendy and fashion-obsessed milieu. She coaxes a pair of high-heeled shoes and a blue dress out of her penniless companion. So is Alice manipulative and advantageous of Tatischeff's kindness? Or is she just naive? In any case, the film's finale and its message are grievously harsh toward the humble Tatischeff, in an unusually dour turn for anything with Tati's name on it.

The movie's tone severely contrasts the legendary director's lifetime oeuvre. Playtime examines similar themes as Hulot wanders mischievously through a world of modern medal and glass. In its first act, Playtime contemplates the prison-like minimalism of modern architecture and its grim lack of texture and personality. However, by the end the film explodes into vivid life as a busy roundabout in downtown Paris becomes a three ring circus of color and activity. As a possible companion piece, The Illusionist feels like a downer, hung up on the victims of Europe's sinister metamorphosis.

But such a flaw is minuscule in the scheme of such splendid visual eloquence. Chotem and his crew of animators produce a color palette so marvelous its hard to describe. The backgrounds seemed watercolored with modest strokes while everything else was detailed with exquisite precision. The reflections of the illusionist in mirrors or on the lochs gave the film an enchanting new dimension to marvel at while the use of light, either turning Edinburgh from night to day or day to night instantaneously, only added extraordinary natural dynamics to the film's already ravishing animated tableau. And when the animation is timed precisely with the film's intoxicating Parisian score (composed by Chotem himself) this cartoon reaches a level of poetic lyricism I've never seen in an animated film. The sheer greatness of The Illusionists' look and feel is worthy of Tati's own visual genius.

Even more, to think the whole story is told with barely a single coherent word or phrase is truly amazing. Most of Tati's work transcended language or nationality. They played very well as silent films and The Illusionist is no different. This animated feature is unlike any other released this year. As animated pictorial, it has panache to burn. As Jacques Tati tribute it rises above its sadder themes with some hilarious gags and a few breathtakingly well executed allusions: Tatischeff stumbles into an old theater playing Tati's own My Uncle in actual footage on the big screen. For a fleeting, but perfectly pitched moment the illusionist gazes up in awe at himself on the screen. It's a sublime homage to the master-mime, as well as to the generations of filmgoers that flocked cinemas to enjoy him.

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