The Illusionist is an animated movie released in 2010. It is based on a script by legendary entertainer and director Jacques Tati, in which he drew on his experience as a music hall performer. Tati wrote the script for the film in 1956, but never put it into production. The script was then given to director Sylvain Chomet (Belleville Rendevous) in the early years of the 21st century. It’s thought that the idea of making an animated movie from the script was suggested by Tati’s youngest daughter, Sophie. Many believe that the script is a kind of love letter to her, and it is she to whom the film is dedicated (although others argue that the script was written for Tati’s eldest, estranged daughter). Either way, it’s thought that the idea was based on Tati’s regret at being distant throughout his daughters’ childhoods, regrets that, by all accounts, are relevant to both relationships.
The film is set in the late fifties and follows Tatischeff (which was Tati’s given name), an ageing music hall illusionist. He performs desultory shows in front of thinning, disinterested audiences, who are increasingly lured away by brighter, louder, newer sources of entertainment. After one performance, Tatischeff hears a knock on the door of his dressing room. He opens it to the manager. While the manager doesn’t speak – the film is almost wordless, though there are occasional mumbles and grunts “ his body language says everything; Tatischeff is finished at the music hall.
It’s testament to the visual artists and animators’ skills that the characters can say so much without speaking. The imagery is beautiful throughout, and the almost caricature images of people incredibly expressive.
Tatischeff ends up performing in a pub on a small island off the coast of Scotland, where the absence of modern entertainment means he’s a big hit, (to put that in context, someone switching on an electric light gets a round of applause). One young girl, Alice, is particularly taken by his performance, and seems to believe he has real magical powers, especially when he uses his earnings to ˜magic’ her a new pair of shoes to replace the ruined pair she wears.
When Tatischeff returns to the mainland, he finds that Alice has accompanied him, and so they travel together to Edinburgh, establishing a kind of father/daughter relationship. Like so many parents, Tatischeff tries to protect Alice’s innocence as long as possible, ˜magicking’ her the new clothes she longs for. He manages this by performing his show, and taking a second job, working all night to provide for them. But the audiences remain small, and when Tatischeff inadvertently wanders into a cinema and sees the big screen, he knows his days as a stage magician are numbered¦
The Illusionist works beautifully, as a semi-autobigraphical story (although Tati himself in fact adapted to, and thrived in the new world of cinema), as a touching story of the two main characters’ relationship, and as a melancholy reflection on a time that is now gone and lost. There are some laughs, many of them provided by Tatischeff’s fat, angry rabbit, who objects strongly to being stuffed into a top hat for each performance. There’s also the overriding sense of melancholy, in the minor characters who are other acts on the music hall stage, whose careers are slowly dying, and in Tatischeff’s relationship with Alice “ that he can’t provide for her, that she’ll outgrow him and move on with her life.