Friday, December 24, 2010

The Illusionist

Jacques Tati’s daughter (who was also the executor of his estate) sent her father’s unproduced script for The Illusionist to Sylvain Chomet after seeing some of the drawings that would grow into his 2003 masterpiece, The Triplets of Belleville. Good call. Chomet lends tender life to the script, which Tati considered too dark to develop for himself, doing justice to its slapstick humor and bemused affection for stupid human tricks while making sure that its wide streak of sentiment doesn’t degenerate into sentimentality.

Typical of both Tati and Chomet, The Illusionist is almost completely free of dialogue but alive with sound – naturalistic ambient sound, comically exaggerated sound effects, and aptly chosen music. Also typical is the funny business that’s often going on in the background and the animal that periodically bumps heads with the humans – and wins.

This time the alpha animal is a recalcitrant rabbit, the little white bunny the title character, an aging magician, pulls out of his top hat – assuming he’s managed to chase the thing down and stuff it in there to begin with. Their chases are one of the movie’s best sight gags, the rabbit always staying one hop ahead of the big, ungainly illusionist, who looks like Tati and moves like his Mr. Hulot, with his storklike walk, his self-effacing, slump-shouldered posture, and manic bursts of activity.

The magician is going nowhere fast when he lands on an island where, like Wendy Hiller’s character in I Know Where I’m Going! and Peter Riegert’s in Local Hero, he’s ambushed by a local resident who takes his life in a whole new direction. She’s a shy but headstrong servant who follows him off the island, adopting him as her surrogate father after becoming convinced that his magic is real. It’s not, of course, but she inspires him to pull off the impossible, giving her the girlhood she never had.

The backdrops are often only barely sketched in, the better to focus our attention on Chomet’s distinctive characters, with their richly expressive faces (those noses!) and body language. As in Belleville, his subject is partly the underbelly of show biz: faded vaudevillians (the story is set in the ‘50s or ‘60s) who band together in threadbare but homey surroundings. The boardinghouse where the illusionist and the girl wind up also houses a ventriloquist who looks way too much like his dummy and a cheery family of gymnasts, who cartwheel down the stairs every morning. What we glimpse of their private lives has the same poignantly comic tone as the illusionist’s tale.

Throughout it all, neon blinks on and off outside a window or the cold winter light hits a Scottish hillside as Chomet’s evocative use of light and sound condense time, place, and season into a concentrated essence.

Written for The L Magazine

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