The Illusionist (2010) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A magician, a girl, and bittersweet melancholy

 Sylvain Chomet’s new animation “The Illusionist” deals with the gloomy subjects rarely told in the blockbuster animations. It is about the decay of one era, the desperation behind that, and the sorrowful acceptance and resignation in the end. The time has changed, the show cannot go on anymore, and there is very little place for him and others.

This sounds quite depressing, but “The Illusionist” is one of the most exquisite animations I have watched lately. The story is indeed depressing. It is like watching a small candlelight faded into the darkness, but it has bittersweet charm with a lovely style, and It amuses us with small warm, humorous moments with its graceful subtlety. The end is inevitable, but it is as inevitable as that of our lives. Its hero does what should be done for a girl he cares about. And then, he steps back gently into his remaining days.

The year is 1959. The cultural change in the 1960s is about to sweep the Western Europe. A French magician is at the end of his career. He is not as popular as before in Paris, so he moves to London, but the trend is also being changed there, too – he is far less popular than a young pop band. Though he is still good in spite of his naughty rabbit(it bites, by the way), his few audiences are mostly old people who remember their pleasant times at music halls a long, long time ago. He also finds the job at some party, but nobody was much interested in his magics.

Fortunately, a drunken Scottish man notices his performance. He invites the magician to some remote beach town in Scotland where even a light bulb is something to behold to the town people(There are cars and boats, but the electricity is rare, and they do laundry without washing machines). The magician finds the right audiences in this town. He does a good job in entertaining jolly, drunken people at the tavern. He has the most satisfying day in recent years. However, even in this town, the change is coming to people’s life anyway. His performance is followed by the new music from a jukebox.

  After the performance, the magician gets the attention of a young girl, who is enthralled by his magic. When he leaves the town, she secretly follows him like a fan, so he accepts her as his companion. At the girl’s request, they go to Edinburgh, and they find their place in a shabby hotel where many other show business professionals like him lodge at. Some people are livelier than others, but  most of them are at the end of road. As in London, the jobs for him are sparse, and, even when he gets a job, the audiences in the music hall are not interested in him except his managers. For maintaining their life and buying the shoes and dresses for her, the magician tries to do any jobs he can find – he tries working at the garage without telling her about it. Meanwhile, the place for his profession and others’ continues to be smaller and smaller.

“The Illusionist” recognizes his hopeless situation and others’ with no discernable future. It is sometimes really bitter to see them down on their luck. It is surely melancholic, but the animation is melancholically beautiful to look at with lots of admirations. The countryside of Scotland looks lovely in cloudy/rainy atmosphere; the streets of Edinburgh are drawn with care and loving details. The characters are drawn broadly, and they do not talk much, but you can understand everything about them even if you do not know English, French, or Gaelic. The magician cannot speak or read English well, and the girl mostly speaks in Gaelic, but you can see that there is mutual affection between them.

The comic situations depicted in the animation work with the subtle timing in a way as droll as the magician’s performance. His rabbit has its funny moment while becoming not only his problem but everyone’s problem behind the stage. The way how the magician tries to take care of the problem he unintentionally causes at the garage is amusing to observe, and there is a humorous situation where the magician misunderstands about what the girl serves for a dinner to him.

 Chomet’s previous animation was “The Triples of Belleville”(2003), whose style and humor were compared by many critics to Jacques Tati’s movies. While there is not much dialogues(you won’t need the subtitle at all when you watch it), the situations in that animation are effortlessly funny while mixed with Chomet’s own dark, neurotic style. And it features one of the slowest(and the most amusing) car chase I have ever seen lately.

In “The Illusionist”, Chomet approaches more closely to Tati’s style. As a matter of fact, his screenplay is based on the one written by Tati himself. The magician’s appearance is a dead ringer to Tati’s famous character, Monsieur Hulot, and Tati’s “Mon Oncle”(1959) makes a cameo appearance later in the story. By the way, there is an interesting story behind Tati’s screenplay due to its autobiographical aspect(Jacques Tatisheff, the magician’s name, is Tati’s real name). Tati always felt guilty about an illegimate daughter he had abandoned a long time ago. He wanted to compensate for his deed with a movie based on that screenplay, but, according to Chomet, he gave up his plan because the story was too painfully personal for him.

From what I have heard and read, Chomet seemed to change several things in Tati’s original plotline during his adaptation process, and, as a result, there was the protest from Tati’s family member when the animation was introduced at the Cannes Film Festival in last year. Regardless of whether Chomet ruined Tati’s original intention or not, that does not change the fact that “The Illusionist” is a very good animation with lots of reasons to recommend; Chomet do a good tribute to Tati’s unique whimsy. I have some reservation about whether the kids like it or not because of the bleak side inside its story, but, to the adult audiences like me, this poetic, whimsical animation is pleasure with the details to be enjoyed – and the wistfulness that comes from the end of the show.

 Sidenote: I watched it for the first time in March, and watched it again in HD yesterday. Again, I realized how high-quality image can improve the experience. The animation looked far more lovely than before.

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