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Movie Review: The Illusionist (PG)

illusionistNow You See It

Visual wonder and quiet beauty pervade the tale of a magician’s kindness

by Jared Peterson

The Illusionist, an animated film by Sylvain Chomet (director of the Oscar-winning The Triplets of Belleville) paints a stirring picture of the small wonders of kindness and the bittersweet end of innocence.

Tatischeff (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda), illusionist extraordinaire, is in the twilight of his career. A relic of a dying art, he deftly and dutifully performs feats of mystery in musty European music halls to smatterings of applause, as the audiences of 1959 are shifting their adulation toward haughty, preening rock acts. Ever dignified and professional, the Illusionist takes work where he can get it. While playing for a distracted wedding reception, a drunken, kilted guest takes notice and hires him to perform at the pub in his tiny Scottish town. The command performance takes place in modest circumstances—his opening act is the ceremonious switching on of the village’s first electric light bulb—but is enthusiastically received.

Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a teenage girl who sweeps up around the pub, is particularly enchanted by the Illusionist’s act, and by his generosity—with sleight-of-hand, he makes small gifts appear for her out of thin air. More than mere trickery, in her innocent eyes his abilities embody the hope of turning nothing into something, and when he leaves she impulsively follows after him. In a wordless exchange, she implores him to take her along, and he relents. Soon, the two arrive in Edinburgh and rent a room at a boarding house for wayward vaudevillians, where they settle into a kind of domesticity. (A shudder of Nabokovian unease is inevitable, but easily and rightly dismissed—this is an odd but chaste arrangement.) Neither appears to have had a family of their own, and a makeshift father-daughter bond forms, one with familiar flaws. Alice takes for granted that the magician will continue to conjure her needs and desires out of thin air; his inclination is to make the show go on for her. In most ways, Alice is still a child, and Tatischeff is like many a parent who wants not only to provide but also to make that providence appear effortless. (What is more generous: a box under a tree or the magical possibilities of how it got there?) Her gift to him is a second chance, and his gift to her is a first. But we know it can’t last forever.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Illusionist is the way it uses, or doesn’t use, the spoken word. There is a persistent language barrier—the Frenchman must get along in Scotland with little English. But the Illusionist is a man of few words whose life’s work has always relied on the silence that precedes magical moments. Alice, too, is a quiet type. His hushed snippets of French and her lilting bursts of what sounded to me like Scots Gaelic become inconsequential. The two make themselves understood, to the audience and each other, with simple gestures and the surety of their actions. There are no subtitles. The film simply nudges words off to the wings, and we may be surprised and satisfied to find that’s exactly where they belong.

Still, The Illusionist is far from a silent film; sounds are very much a part of the picture. The whispering of a breeze through the grass of a seaside cliff, the ticking of a clock midway into the late shift, the crack of joints from the morning’s first stretch—they are aural brushstrokes that add detail and life to this lovingly crafted portrait. Visually, The Illusionist employs a kind of sketchbook realism that is simply beautiful to see. Some characters are cartoonish—smooshed or elongated to comic effect, as in the altogether more bizarre and trippy Triplets. But the overall effect is of a lovely watercolor come alive.

The original story was written some five decades ago by the great French comedian and filmmaker Jacques Tati (family name Tatischeff), as a tribute to his daughter Sophie. Long after his death, Sophie has entrusted Tati’s tender tale to Chomet, who has made it a tribute to them both. Comic and sweet and sad, The Illusionist conveys both the illusion and the reality of a pivotal moment between father and daughter.

The Illusionist is rated PG. There is casual smoking and some heavy drinking. The latter often leads to comical staggering; in one case, though, it helps a particularly sad clown work up the courage to nearly hang himself. (Fear not, though—a simple act of kindness brings him back from the brink.) We also catch the briefest glimpse of the kilted Scotsman’s bare rear end. Disney this is not, and the quietude and languorous pace will likely have children squirming or snoozing in their seats.

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