SHORT TAKE: “The Illusionist” (****)

Posted by · 6:33 pm · February 16th, 2010

The IllusionistBerlin International Film Festival

It took six days and an awful lot of films, but the Berlinale has finally turned up a masterpiece. Moreover, it’s a rare case of one of the fest’s most eagerly awaited titles managing to meet, and even subvert, expectations.

“The Illusionist,” French animator Sylvain Chomet long-gestating follow-up the 2003 Oscar nominee “The Triplets of Belleville,” confirms a truly singular auteur sensibility, while revealing a more disciplined artist and storyteller within. A streamlined character study, less deliriously eccentric in tone and structure than his debut feature, “The Illusionist” nonetheless boasts an emotional heft that handsomely repays its creator’s restraint.

Those who have been following the project will already know the reason for the newfound calm in Chomet’s quirk. “The Illusionist” is based on a previously unfilmed script by the late comic master Jacques Tati, and the film plays as a fascinating across-the-decades collaboration between two distinct voices (though given their shared preference for amusingly garbled dialogue, perhaps “distinct” isn’t the word) of French comedy: the tangling of Tati’s genial situational humor with Chomet’s more extravagant flights of fancy proves mutually enhancing.

The ghost of Tati isn’t merely present behind the screen, but on it: the illusionist of the title is Monsieur Tatischeff (Tati’s real surname), a low-rent traveling magician whose loping gait and consistently doleful expression recall both the director himself and his most famous screen creation, Monsieur Hulot.

Tatischeff’s rabbit-and-hat act outmoded in rock ‘n’ roll-crazy 1950s Paris and London, he accepts a gig in a dead-end Scottish village. There, guileless young local Alice is sufficiently enamored of his “magic” to stow away with him to Edinburgh, her dreams of a better life pinned on his cheap sleight of hand. If that pitch sounds sentimental, that’s because the film is quite proudly so: if Tatischeff is a Hulot substitute, Sophie is a wide-eyed waif of the Chaplin school, and her journey towards womanhood is a shamelessly quaint heartbreaker of a story arc.

One could argue for it as a kind of anti-love story between two disconsolate souls, a child’s-eye “Lost in Translation” of sorts, but if anyone (or anything) is the recipient of a valentine in the film, it’s Edinburgh itself, the city’s every crevice rendered by Chomet’s animators with breathtaking beauty and attention to detail. (Any previous visitor will have a field day playing ‘spot the location.’)

Indeed, the film as a whole is an astonishing animator’s showcase: the jazzy, angular figures of “The Triplets of Belleville” are still present and correct, but in place of that film’s spiky visual textures and beigey palette is an exquisite, pastel-toned watercolor aesthetic, suggestive of the classic animation of the film’s own milieu.

Animators not already charmed by the affable storytelling can’t fail to impressed by its dazzling technique; even this early in the year, the film looks a strong threat for a 2010 Oscar nod. Either way, “The Illusionist” is a thrilling fulfillment of promise.

→ 18 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

18 responses so far

  • 1 2-16-2010 at 6:44 pm

    Dylan said...

    The Triplets of Belleville remains one of my all-time favorites, so I am very excited about this. Do you know if a trailer has been released?

  • 2 2-16-2010 at 6:47 pm

    Jim T said...

    That’s great news! Thank you for sharing.

  • 3 2-16-2010 at 7:11 pm

    arthur III said...

    But what shame is Chomet not telling us?

  • 4 2-16-2010 at 7:54 pm

    Kevin said...

    Truth be told, I haven’t had much luck with animated films in the past. Between “Illusionist” and 2009’s robust output, it’s glad to see the medium taking (giant) strides forward.

    As you may have guessed, I haven’t seen “Belleville” yet, I guess I should probably get around to fixing that!

  • 5 2-16-2010 at 8:11 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I had no idea this existed but it’s an instant must-see. Everything Chomet touches is gold (Belleville, Kirikou and the Sorceress, his piece in Paris je T’aime) and the ghost of Tati could make a better film than 90% of all other filmmakers. Sony Classics, pick this up!

  • 6 2-16-2010 at 10:43 pm

    Craig Fletcher said...

    Chomet’s live action segment in Paris je T’aime was shockingly dreadful.

  • 7 2-17-2010 at 7:32 am

    Morgan said...

    If this is “Belleville” with a better story, I’m in. Loved the animation on “Belleville,” but the story seriously lost focus toward the end.

  • 8 2-17-2010 at 12:50 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Hey a film to beat Toy Story 3!

    Thanks for the update. Appreciate hearing from Berlin which seems to get lost in the shuffle. great to hear that animation is on the rise further.

  • 9 2-17-2010 at 6:25 pm

    Dylan said...

    When you say “a strong threat for a 2010 Oscar nod” do you mean Best Picture, or simply Best Animated?

  • 10 2-17-2010 at 7:25 pm

    Cordy said...

    Dylan he better mean both.

    I have to say, as Tati, and the evolution of burlesque I studied in an aesthetics class being what got me so interested in film, I cannot wait to see this film. The idea of a Hulot like character being a magician is more than enough to get me to see it, but I can’t imagine what a Tati screenplay could become in the animation medium. This has quickly become my number one movie to see this year

  • 11 2-18-2010 at 4:54 pm

    Craig Fletcher said...

    They is no way when all of Hollywood have gone into 3D overdrive and the Oscar’s have gone back to what’s popular at the box office that this will get a look in, its so yesterday even before its been released. Unfortunately the progressive sands of time wait for no man. Chomet dropped the baton big time when he was sacked from the big budget Tales of Despereaux and pissed off everyone involved.

  • 12 2-19-2010 at 12:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Craig: So, how do you explain the nomination for The Secret of Kells?

  • 13 2-19-2010 at 2:51 pm

    Steve said...

    Oh, wow – this review plucks at every one of my affections; the film sounds magnificent! Since it sounds as if there are folks on the ground at the Berlinale, is there any word on US distribution?

  • 14 11-04-2010 at 6:38 am

    bibi said...

    I just wanted to point out that mistake, that the ‘guileless young local Sophie’ is called Alice…

    Sophie Tatischeff is the legitimate daughter of Jacques Tatischeff (Tati).

  • 15 11-04-2010 at 7:02 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Nine months, and somebody finally calls me on my mind-slip. Thanks, Bibi.

  • 16 2-05-2011 at 7:31 am

    Brent said...

    Craig missed out on this one bigtime. Oscar came out for Chomet, the same way they did with Kells, Persepolis, Spirited, etc.etc.