This second feature from Sylvain Chomet, director of the wonderful Belleville Rendez-Vous (2002) is a beautifully bittersweet animated masterpiece that ranks amongst the finest films of the year, animated or otherwise. Closely adapted from an unfilmed script by the French comic maestro Jacques Tati, it recalls the best of that director's own work but also the elegiac tone of Charles Chaplin's late picture Limelight (1952) in it's story of a vaudevillian music hall performer in the late 1950s struggling to survive in a world more interested in rock n roll than the simpler tastes of a dying age.
Almost entirely dialogue free but far from being a silent picture, Chomet's gift in creating fully fledged, living, breathing characters, in some cases on screen for mere seconds treads the line between exaggeration and grotesquerie but never indulges in obvious caricature, each being a wonderfully observed and unique creation often living only in the furthest corners of the frame.
Tatischeff (Jacques Tati's birth name) is an old fashioned stage magician, travelling from France to London and on to Edinburgh in search of an ever-dwindling audience for his act, nominally involving a grumpy rabbit and sleight of hand tricks in the most traditional sense. At each and every venue he's upstaged by a popular rock n roll band Billy Boy and the Britoons, until that is he meets young Alice, a waitress in a remote Scottish pub who sees his tricks not as illusions but as true magical powers that can perhaps conjure her a better life in the big city, a stunningly rendered Edinburgh. It's perhaps Tatischeff's greatest illusion, taking on extra jobs to provide her with everything she wants and going as far as he can to at least maintain one person's faith in magic.
They're surrounded in the artist's hotel in which they set up home by other such performers on the brink of obsolescence, a suicidal clown, a team of hyper-energetic acrobats and an alcoholic ventroliquist, all struggling to eke out a living in the face of more modern and sophisticated tastes in entertainment. As Alice continues on her journey from naive country child to gentrified modern woman, our illusionist must decide how far to maintain her idealised and wide-eyed belief in his powers as provider, a denouement which won't leave a dry eye in the cinema.
The ticking clock of time is never far from the screen, and a melancholic sense of needing to move forward, adapt or fade away is the film's key theme. Chomet conjures his own cinematic illusions too that inspire a sense of wonder, there are sight gags aplenty and the city of Edinburgh itself is simultaneously an extraordinary world of hardship and beauty, the realism in it's portrayal intermittently punctured by shots of feathers mistaken for snow and shadows of everyday objects taking on a new life of their own. For better or for worse things aren't always what they seem, a lesson that Alice must ultimately learn at Tatischeff's reluctant hand.
I was surprised by the tone of The Illusionist, it's overwhelming air of sadness and loss is a brave choice that separates it from the more life-affirming animated pictures made by Pixar. But it's also a singularly individual work, unlike anything else you'll see this year. Constantly surprising, it's voice may err more towards the bitter than the sweet, but 80 minutes in the hands of Sylvain Chomet is enough to restore anyone's faith in magic.
The Illusionist - 2010 - 80 mins - Dir : Sylvain Chomet