MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF Review: The Illusionist

The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet‘s animated adaptation of an unproduced script by French comedic legend Jacques Tati, is a sad, soulful, touching tale about a vaudeville magician past his prime and his friendship with a young girl.

Chomet, who previously made the excellent The Triplets of Bellville (which referenced Tati’s Jour de Fête), uses his uniquely beautiful hand-drawn animation style to bring the character of the illusionist to life, modeling him after Tati’s famous recurring character Monsieur Hulot in both design and action.

There are, in particular, several scenes in the film — one backstage as the illusionist awaits his turn to go onstage after a rock band, another when he’s working a second job in a garage and has to clean the car of a customer using modern tools, and a third when he is reduced to taking a job performing tricks with bras, pantyhose and ladies’ perfume in a department store display window — that will immediately evoke Monsieur Hulot to anyone passingly familiar with Tati’s work.

There’s even a delightful little scene where the magician wanders into a movie theater where Tati’s Mon Uncle is playing on the screen. All these little moments make the film a delight, almost a scavenger hunt, for cinephiles who like Tati’s films.

The Illusionist is more than just a referential homage to its script and writer, though. With sparse (and by “sparse” I mean: almost completely absent) dialogue, the film explores ideas around aging, growing obsolete, the metaphorical “changing of the guard” that must ultimately come to each generation, as we travel with the weary illusionist by rail to far-flung towns and villages as he seeks out those who will still pay him to perform. A modern rock band, The Britoons, act as stand-ins for the changing tide making the illusionist’s vaudevillian way of life obsolete.

But just as the old man is feeling put out to pasture, he takes a gig in a remote Scottish village that’s just celebrating the arrival of electricity (yes, in the late 1950s, when the film is set) and it’s there that he meets Alice, a young girl who works at the bar.

Alice, a girl on the verge of adulthood, is so openly trusting that she comes to believe the illusionist really does have magical powers, and stows away with him when he leaves; the unlikely pair, who quickly form a father-daughter bond, travel together to Edinburgh where he finds them a place at a boarding house for vaudeville performers and she plays housemaid.

For a while he tries to sustain Alice’s belief in him by secretly working manual labor-type jobs at night for the extra cash to buy her pretty things. But soon enough, the teenaged Alice, thriving in the urban environment, becomes a young lady who attracts the attention of a young man, and the illusionist knows that as the girl grows up, the illusion he’s crafted for her of who he is will shatter, and she will see him as he sees himself: an old, out-of-date man with nothing to offer but smoke and mirrors to distract from what he really is.

And in a way, as a parent I related very much to the old man’s plight. After all, we all as parents do our best to create our own world of illusion for our children: a world where their parents know all things and protect them from all things — illusions that shatter as our nestlings hit their teen years and wake up one day cynical and wise and knowing more than their parents, and want to spread their wings without our shelter and safety net. And didn’t we, as children ourselves, look up to our parents for that brief, shining moment and feel protected within the circle of magic created by their love? If we were lucky, we did.

The Illusionist is a beautifully drawn work of art by one artist bringing to life the work of another; the animation is at times breathtaking, the use of music effective in setting the tone, and the little details that lend the context of time and place throughout the film smart and subtle. It is an altogether stunningly lovely, charming, touching and soulful film.

Now, I would be remiss if I wrote this review without noting at least in passing that there has been some degree of controversy over this film: over the way in which the director acquired the script from Tati’s daughter Sophie before her death, and over questions raised by family members of a woman alleged to be Tati’s secret, out-of-wedlock daughter as to who Tati actually penned this script for.

I mention this only to note that I am aware of the allegations and the controversy, but I am here at TIFF not to do investigative journalism or to pass judgment I’m not qualified to make on Tati, the man, who was surely as a human being as flawed as any of us are.

What I am here at TIFF to do is review films, period, and in watching and judging The Illusionist, I tried to cast any knowledge of controversy aside and just focus on the film as it is. And as such, I found The Illusionist, whatever the truth about its author’s five-decades old intentions in writing it, to beautifully evoke simple, honest truths about aging, the passing of time, the relationships between parents and children, and the inevitability of obsolescence all of us must face, in the end. It’s lovely, just lovely.

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“TIFF doesn’t make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it’s bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn’t become a significant draw for film enthusiasts. The Lightbox’s attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox’s walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city’s most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside. TIFF “still has a world-class brand,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, “but it’s going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance.”
~ Globe & Mail Epic On State of Toronto Int’l (paywalled)

“I’m 87 years old… I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive… The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing. Like there was before I was born. I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation.

“The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.

“Anybody else you’ve interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call… Hey, brother. That’s great, man. Yeah, I’m being interviewed… We’re talking about nothing. I’ve got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He’s stopped asking questions.”
~ Harry Dean Stanton