Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2011

Tati knows best

The great director's unproduced script provides the inspiration for another Sylvain Chomet stunner

The Illusionist
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Screenplay: Jacques Tati and Sylvain Chomet
Starring: The voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin and Paul Bandey
Rated PG / 1 hour, 20 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

I have not been able to shake the final 20 minutes of The Illusionist since I first saw it. I'm not one to get overly emotional at the movies - enthusiastic, yes; passionate, yes; downright geeky, yes - but outright emoting? Hardly.

This time, Sylvain Chomet almost did me in. I say almost, friends, because ultimately I held it together. But suffice it to say that this film - which was already wonderful in its own right - concludes with a sequence that is heartbreaking, beautiful and sad, and which left me both smiling and devastated.

Faces on a train, bustling city streets, the dimming lights of a run-down theatre, a note on the kitchen table . . . all part of a progression of images in the final act that slowly and gracefully builds to a stunning emotional crescendo practically without us noticing quite what's coming.

We've seen a budding kinship develop over the course of the film - between the aging illusionist struggling to keep his act afloat in a changing world, and the poor young woman, Alice, so entranced by his sleight-of-hand artistry that she insists on tagging along on the old magician's trek to Edinburgh. What proceeds is as warm a surrogate father/daughter relationship as I've seen.

He dazzles her with magic tricks and lavish gifts, and with her charming naivete, she seems to believe - or at least convinces herself she believes - that it's all truly magic. Little miracles.

Cinephiles will of course recognize the illusionist as, for all intents and purposes, the legendary Monsieur Hulot character that French filmmaker/actor Jacques Tati perfected in classics M. Hulot's Holiday, Mon Oncle and - perhaps one of the 20 or 30 greatest films of all-time - Playtime.

Indeed, The Illusionist is based on an unproduced screenplay by Tati himself that was reportedly a "message" to a daughter he abandoned. Now, I know too little about Tati's family and personal life to speak any further on the subject, nor do I know how much the final film resembles the early script.

What is clear, however, is that the creative forces behind The Illusionist have a great affection for Alice, and that a pall of melancholy, nostalgia and regret hang over the entire film. That speaks volumes.

Which is not to suggest that this is simply a downer. Far from it. Tati was one of the funniest filmmakers who ever lived and Chomet has followed in his footsteps magnificently. There are too many great moments of whimsy, absurdity and wit to mention. Chomet has the same tremendous gift for comedic flights of fancy as did his predecessor.

This is Chomet's second feature after 2003's great The Triplets of Belleville. Once again, he keeps his dialogue to a minimum, telling the tale almost entirely through his gorgeous and eccentric hand-drawn visuals and intricate sound design.

One thing that sticks out about great animators is their understanding of even the oldest traditions of cinematic language. You watch a film like this, or a Pixar film, or a number of great Disney films from the studio's golden age, and it's blatantly obvious how much influence they're pulling from the silent era.

It makes sense, of course - silent film artists had to communicate everything visually. And so the best of them developed an understanding of the way that visual language worked that bordered on genius. Chomet and others like him have that same understanding. Far from being a gimmick, in both of his films the style has brought us closer to the characters, not distanced us. It's not only their actions that speak louder than words, but glances and gestures, too. And far from being an inhibitor, it opens up limitless possibilities for sight gags and storytelling techniques.

Tati himself, who worked primarily from the late 1940s to the early '70s, was basically the best silent film star that the silent era never saw.

But enough of my geeky rambling, right? The Illusionist has such effortless charm and warmth, and draws us in so intimately, that the old illusionist and the girl who adores him become as real as any live-action character. As real and, yes, as fully capable of shocking us, delighting us and breaking our hearts.

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