L’Illusioniste: The Persistence of NostalgiaBy Frederik Sisa @ 1:00 PM January 07, 2011
A film like The Illusionist – not to be confused with the 2006 live-action feature starring Edward Norton – presents a challenge in connecting with audiences. Its nostalgia, emblematic of the past giving way to the future, is rooted in yet another staging of vaudeville’s death. But while the sentiment of mourning the passing of something dear is universal, how many in today’s generations can appreciate a demise that rates as a radical paradigm shift? Since growing up from childhood to mid-thirties, I have seen a number of technological evolutions: command line interfaces to graphical user interfaces and virtual reality, bulletin board chat rooms to sophisticated social networking and eCommerce, 2D movies to immersive 3D experiences, VHS and cassette tapes to streaming and multimedia phone apps. Change, in other words, has become the operative status quo of modern times. Imagine the impact — revolutionary more than evolutionary — of radio and television on the turn-of-the-century generations prior to mine, people accustomed to being entertained through live performances. Forget channel surfing; on the stage you could see acrobats, magicians, dancing girls, ventriloquists and more in an entertainment smorgasbord. Today’s vaudeville analogue is the dizzying buffet of programs delivered in every way except through implants in the cerebral cortex, but as it amounts to a logical progression in which nothing really surprises anymore, it doesn’t strike me as a match for the pivotal moment when electronic technology truly and irrevocably became pervasive in our lives.
That The Illusionist, directed by Sylvain Chomet of Triplets of Belleville fame, is an adaptation of a previously unproduced script by the legendary French comic filmmaker Jacques Tati offers an added dimension of nostalgia, a “what if” scenario. This is particularly the case given how the film has brought forth family squabbles over the significance of the script and to whom it should be dedicated. Like the death of vaudeville, however, it all amounts to context whose importance and weight will vary with the viewers. Thankfully, the film’s heartbeat follows its own rhythm, and the pleasure really comes from the opulent animation and the fascinating relationship between a fading magician, a role Tati intended for himself, and a naïve young woman who, had the film been made, would have been played by Tati’s daughter Sophia Tatischeff.
Recalling the style of old movie posters, Chomet’s retro-esque animation tones down the surrealism he used in Triplets of Belleville but retains the caricaturist’s finely-honed ability to evoke personality traits through stylized anatomies. There’s considerable visual wit in the character designs that, working off the script, results in poignancy and even affectionate ribbing that embodies no mean spirit. For example, a Scotsman with a propensity for drinking could easily be slapped around as a stereotype, but the character’s friendliness and zest are showcased as much as the drunkenness, enough that we can only be charmed as much as amused. So it is with other characters who are subject to gentle humour and tender pathos without being reduced to punchlines or members of a pity parade. Also present is a fine art sensibility with scenes achieving the painterly quality of aching beauty. Needless to say, amidst the glut of 3D animation, The Illusionist — with nostalgia built into its style — stands apart for its masterful traditionalism.
Not so traditional, yet all the more traditional because of it, is the relationship between Tatischeff the illusionist, whose capable but musty act is steadily being eclipsed by the television age, and a young woman, an admirer who follows him from her Scottish village as he tours Europe. Stripped of the contemporary cynicism that would see perversity and pedophilia in the arrangement, we are given instead something more profound precisely because of its innocence. There’s a father-daughter surrogacy at work, certainly, but what makes their relationship so compelling is that it isn’t easily reducible to any one kind of dynamic. Is she taking advantage of Tatischeff, or is she really so naïve as to believe that pretty things appear out of nowhere with the wave of a magician’s hand? Is Tatischeff taking care of her out of a desired relief from his lonely existence, or does memory of a tragic undisclosed past hold sway? At the least, one can appreciate the companionship between the two. It is up to the viewer to piece together motives and rationales.
The Illusionist, with its fading stars and parting of ways, is a sad tale, but not unfairly so. It is neither a tragedy nor, strictly speaking, an elegy. Rather, it pays witness to the inescapable fact that necessity is the parent of change, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, and sometimes because that’s the way things have to be. It is a tale of growing up and letting go, two things that are never easy. Although the nostalgia arguably comes with an overly thick layer of dust, The Illusionist remains a moving, human story told through superlative animation.
L’illusioniste (The Illusionist). Directed by Sylvain Chomet. Adapted by Sylvain Chomet from a script by Jacques Tati.With the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin and Duncan MacNeil. 80 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.
Frédérik invites you to discuss this film and more at his blog, inkandashes.net.