One need only watch the film’s trailer to get a sense of the beauty and craftsmanship present within The Illusionist. It is even more pleasing to the eye than Silvain Chomet’s massively successful first feature, The Triplets of Belleville, although the story is not as engaging. Based on an unproduced script by renowned writer, director, actor, and mime Jacques Tati (1907-1982), the tale centers on a magician whose tricks are no longer sought after in the age of television and rock and roll. Chomet based the look of the magician on Tati himself, which works well within the story since his ordinary appearance is constantly upstaged by the fantastic looking characters around him who are contributing to the end of his era.
It has often been said that the purest and most difficult style of filmmaking is one that does not rely on dialogue or exposition to tell the story, but does so solely through moving images. As with Triplets, Chomet does this once again by having characters that rarely speak and deliver mostly grunts and other barely audible sounds when they do. Their personalities come from their exaggerated faces and physicality, which represent the most impressive accomplishments of Chomet and his animation team. For example, the effeminate and jovial way that the famous rock musicians carry themselves evokes laughter every time.
This speechless style of filmmaking is also the most difficult because it often will come at the detriment of audience involvement. As endearing as these characters are, there is a bit of a disconnect created by never hearing them speak, it can be very difficult to sustain a 90 minute story this way. I’m not the first to admit that I had trouble staying awake during this film, which is not to say it was boring or bad in any way, but that it is not the kind of story that has you sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what happens next. The predominantly visual experience has a very relaxing effect which is enhanced by an almost aimless narrative (and by seeing it after a late night working and an early morning screening of Snabba Cash). Though to be fair, I should not criticize the cohesiveness of a film that I drifted off once or twice while watching, but until I see it again I’ll consider it one of those ‘chicken or egg’ conundrums.
Much of the film concentrates on the relationship formed between the magician and the young woman who takes care of his current lodgings (where he is relegated to sleeping on the couch). It is mostly due to the age difference that we never view this as a romantic relationship. She enjoys his slight-of-hand and he seems to have taken a liking to her as well, and we’re made to assume they are fulfilling some kind of father/ daughter relationship that was lacking in their lives before meeting. The film is actually dedicated to Tati’s daughter whom the constantly preoccupied filmmaker always regretted not having a better relationship with. Ultimately I found we didn’t really know enough about these characters and their history, nor did they have enough scenes together for us to fully understand and care about their relationship.
One thing missing from this film that added so much to Triplets is memorable music. Of course there is music present in The Illusionist, in fact Chomet himself provides the score, but it does not play the same kind of central role that it did in his first film. Apart from musical performances, The Illusionist does delight us by depicting many other forms of performance, such as dancing, flying trapeze artists, and of course, magic.
As I review my review, I notice that have been very critical about certain points of this film, so I want to reiterate that this a true piece of art well worth seeing. Using a gorgeous, labour intensive yet almost antiquated method of animation feels like a very appropriate way to pay homage to both Tati and the kind of performer that does not really exist anymore as represented by the magician. This film has been over five years in the making, and the results are stunning. Look for a limited release around Christmas time.