Wistful and whimsical, minimalist and moving, slow-paced and rich with pathos, The Illusionist is a surprising, unusually nuanced antidote to garish mainstream cartoon fare; an old-style, hand-drawn animated film of fleeting charms rather than loud noises; a French story without dialogue and with one of the most depressing final acts ever committed to celluloid. It’s enough to make you laugh if you didn’t feel like crying.
Set in 1959, a down-on-his-luck illusionist, known by his stage name “Tatischeff,” packs his meagre belongings and props and moves to London. Later, living modestly in a room above a pub on a remote Scottish island, the illusionist encounters a young girl named Alice, but is unable to muster the courage to tell his starry-eyed admirer the truth about his fading trade.
The Illusionist is a modest homage to the sweet, sad melancholia of the legendary French comic Jacques Tati (Playtime). Like Tati himself, The Illusionist feels like a relic of a different time, eschewing flash and opting for heart. French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) builds a beguiling symphony of sadness that does ample justice to Tati’s tale, both in text and out. For its spartan 80 minutes, the movie creates the illusion of Tati’s form of cerebral slapstick. If this lovely tribute sends viewers in search of the real thing, that would be a neat trick indeed.
Chomet directed, wrote, illustrated, and composed the music for this handcrafted jewel of a movie. The defiantly two-dimensional artwork is warm and inviting; the dialogue is multilingual, garbled, and largely incidental; the physical comedy is magical and gracefully rendered; the gentle waltz theme and music hall tunes glide by effortlessly. In terms of pacing, scoring, editing, and narrative, it’s a film school unto itself, with exquisite imagery, poignant humour, and echoes of cinema history. While it remains an extension of Tati’s mystery and conceals the real-life events that inspired it, it lives and breathes on its own.
Simple enough for children, deep enough for adults, clever enough for cynics, The Illusionist is no less beautiful for making the case that beauty is a lie. Watching it is like peering through a rippled, rain-saddled windowpane onto a past that knows it’s disappearing. It invites the audience to luxuriate in the hand-painted visuals, then to chuckle at the small jokes stuffed into the corners of the film, where Highland cheer meets French ennui.
In its glorious revival of the neglected art of silent comedy – indeed, The Illusionist functions as a love letter to silent showmanship and a lament for its obsolescence on stage and screen – layers of visual, narrative, and character detail are fluidly conveyed like poetry. It understands the illusions that sustain us in youth, the ones we must release at the end. Silence has rarely been so telling.
Whereas Belleville was a rollicking, delightful adventure, The Illusionist is a nostalgic pout with an arrowhead of emotional pain, like a glass of wine on a winter afternoon. Twinkly, droll, and bittersweet, it begins as an act of devotion and becomes a thing of ethereal beauty: a fable, a tone poem, an elegy on regret, generosity, and ungratefulness. The sadness is affecting; the enchantment is irresistible. It’s the rare work of art that cherishes both the magic and the trick.