REVIEW: L’illusionniste [The Illusionist] [2010]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 80 minutes | Release Date: June 16th, 2010 (France)
Studio: Pathé / Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Sylvain Chomet
Writer(s): Sylvain Chomet / Jacques Tati (original screenplay)

“Magicians don’t exist”

There are three names in animation today: Pixar, Miyazaki, and Sylvain Chomet. The first is a major branch of Disney and the second is a Japanese staple, always making its way stateside with help from the Mouse House too. The Frenchman, Chomet, could be the most intriguing and quite possibly the best of the group. With only two feature length films to his name—and a live action segment in Paris, je t’aime, disappointing only because it wasn’t animated—too much praise may be premature, but if you saw Les triplettes de Belleville or his newest, L’illusionniste, you’ll understand why the risk should be taken. His style is like nothing else out there—a hyper real world inhabited by human figures utilizing caricatured attributes to push the aesthetic towards humorous fantasy. Couple the signature look with an almost complete lack of language, save for a few common words mixed in with garbled or foreign mumbling without the need for translation, and you’re given a world of magic for all ages.

Maybe that is a bit misleading as the subject matter could easily go over the head of children, but even if the finer points of the story may be lost, the muted bright colors and the humor transcend language and age to be understood visually and emotionally. The sheer fact Chomet took an unproduced script from auteur Jacques Tati to adapt for his tale of an illusionist traveling through Europe to find work shows his skill at taking a medium usually reserved for the kiddies and making it relevant to true cinema lovers. There are no fluffy animals breaking into song and no completely round and protruding eyes welling with tears to tug at heartstrings. Besides the gentleman behind me, obviously dragged to a film he and his wife had no clue about—she asking, ‘honey, is this some form on animation?’ as he sighed heavily to prove the point of his boredom and utter lack of giving it a chance—I don’t see how anyone looking to be captivated by a world and touched by its characters could be disappointed.

L’illusionniste isn’t an easy film to take in, though. Set in the late 1950s with Cold War allusions portrayed through newspaper headlines on the street, there are definitely underlying themes at play, the most important being the belief in helping our fellow man at their time of need. The main character is unwanted in France due to lackluster attendance and appreciation for his illusions and a quick stop to London only shows the changing tide of the world more. His art is fast becoming a dying act from a generation overtaken by the surge of rock bands and screaming girl fandom—expressed by a crazy band called The Britons, writhing on the floor with a guitar, playing up the machismo for the hoards of fawning girls in the audience, and than skipping and prancing effeminately backstage when the curtain was drawn. I smell a bit of a French shot towards the Brits, a little class versus crass, but besides any inside jokes, the point of a blatant change in the tide of entertainment is made. If not for a drunkard Scot loving a performance and bringing him home, this magician might have given up.

But even Scotland has moved on. The small bar patrons eat the act up, but it doesn’t take long for new electricity to power a jukebox and render The Illusionist obsolete. Adults just don’t want to see magic anymore and only little Alice, the girl who cleans up the lodgings above the bar, sees the spark his show creates. She is so captivated by his craft that she decides to join him on his journey, assuming they will want for nothing and he will create whatever they need to survive. He takes her under his wing like a daughter, buying her gifts and giving them to her in fun, sleight-of-hand ways, adding to her belief in his powers. While she stays in the room, meets the other performers in their Edinburgh lodging—a ventriloquist, a trio of athletic gymnasts, and a down on his luck clown who appears to be the poster child for hobos—and traipses through the city with her new coat, shoes, and confidence, The Illusionist does what he can to pay their way.

His agent gets him a stage with minimal customers, an ad for mechanic help gives an opportunity for extra cash, and the cold hard truth of either selling out or giving up weighs heavy on his soul. The fact he keeps going, doing what he can to support this girl, becomes the touching backdrop to a tale that could be looked on as a tragedy. The film’s title soon shows itself to be less about the lead’s act and more about the illusion he cultivates to help Alice turn from a poor, sad little girl to the naïve, yet compassionate, young woman who looks dresses like a member of high society. It’s through his demise that she rises; his sacrifice allows her to make something of herself. As a result, every character progresses towards a bittersweet conclusion steeped in faith or its loss. Humor abounds, especially with the supporting characters coming in and out of the more stoic illusionist’s life—even his bite-crazy rabbit in the hat joins in the fun. But when all is said and done, the emotions, the bonds formed, and the sacrifices made are what resonate. Chomet knows they are what will hit us hard and do so without the need of words.

Also, kudos to the director for a brilliant sequence at the ‘Cameo’ Theatre with a screening of Tati’s Mon Oncle. It’s a great way to pay homage to the writer as well as his character Monsieur Hulot, an obvious inspiration for the titular Illusionist.

[1] The Illusionist in The Illusionist, directed by Sylvain Chomet © 2010 Django Films Illusionist Ltd / Cine B / France 3 Cinema, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to Right: The Illusionist and Alice in The Illusionist, directed by Sylvain Chomet © 2010 Django Films Illusionist Ltd / Cine B / France 3 Cinema, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] The Illusionist in The Illusionist, directed by Sylvain Chomet © 2010 Django Films Illusionist Ltd / Cine B / France 3 Cinema, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.