The Illusionist Review
Warning – it was too difficult to review The Illusionist without discussing SPOILERS, so be warned before you read on.
There is a wonderful moment in Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2003 animation Belleville Rendez-Vous that neatly encapsulates the story and the film’s ideas as a whole. In 1959, a Parisian stage magician, in search of a paying audience, performs his routine at an inn on a remote Scottish island. Amid the dim candlelight and traditional music of the local band, his tricks and sleight of hand feel almost at home. Then, at the flick of a switch, he is instantly rendered obsolete: electricity has just reached the island. Warm candlelight is replaced by sterile brightness; a jukebox suddenly comes to life where the performers recently stood. And the magician realises that even here, he cannot escape the relentless march of progress.
The Illusionist is both a beautiful tale of realisation and acceptance, and a quietly affecting eulogy to the era of music hall entertainment. Chomet’s style of animation is instantly recognisable, and its doggedly old-fashioned hand-drawn feel is perfectly matched with its tale of an entertainer who cannot compete with the dawn of the age of television and rock ‘n’ roll. It is based on an unfilmed script written by Jacques Tati, whose real name Tatischeff is bestowed upon the titular magician.
Tatischeff is forced to relocate from one theatre to another, as dwindling audiences turn their back on his old style of entertainment. Moving firstly to London, then the aforementioned island, and finally to Edinburgh, his determination to find a home for his act is resolute, even as his entire industry is slowly breathing its last. The idea of obsolescence in the face of progress has been done before of course – see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, or even this summer’s Toy Story 3 – but the quiet, dignified way in which Tatischeff attempts to carry on regardless gives this French film a strangely British flavour, and makes the story’s relocation to this island all the more appropriate.
On his travels he picks up a runaway girl, enamoured of his act and believing his tricks to be the real thing, who leaves the island and arrives with him in Edinburgh. Their curious alliance – he pays the bills while working in a variety of supplementary jobs, she cooks and cleans – is very much the heart of the film. She is on the cusp of adulthood, admiring new ladies’ fashions and asking for her new found friend to magic them out of thin air, which Tatischeff, unwilling to shatter her illusion, tries to accommodate despite the mounting financial cost. The extra work he takes on, including an ill-judged position as overnight garage mechanic, provides a solid vein of humour throughout.
This is almost undercut however by the darker edges of the story. Other music hall acts are suffering just as much as Tatischeff, and their stories add pathos to the narrative. It is impossible to ignore the stench of death in this world populated by drunks, freaks and over-the-hill former headliners. Yet Chomet’s film clearly mourns the passing of this age and its people. Even in their death throes, the music hall acts have a vitality and humanity that television and the vainglorious rock stars fail to match. Crucially, Chomet strikes just the right balance in telling their stories, never laughing at these characters nor dwelling on their pain.
In the end, the illusions of both Tatischeff and the girl are shattered: she realises that magic isn’t real, and the world must be faced by standing on her own two feet; and he realises that his act, and his way of life, has come to an end. Yet it is a bittersweet conclusion, as with realisation comes acceptance and perhaps also release. It is a fitting and tender conclusion that rounds off what is surely one of the finest films of the year.