As a child, it can be a little traumatic to see a magician make a mistake and drop his thumb. I mean his false thumb, from which he might produce a silk scarf, as if out of thin air. I did not cry back then, but at age 25, I did cry watching the lustrous cartoon The Illusionist, about a fatherly gent who stops pulling a rabbit out of his hat, and starts pulling a young girl out of her childhood. Merely a week after My Dog Tulip played the NW Film Center, Cinema 21 answers the call by screening this, another decent new work of hand-drawn animation. Director Sylvain Chomet employs a team of craftsmen to animate The Illusionist, an unproduced screenplay by the late French comedian Jacques Tati.
The movie follows an aging sleight-of-hand artist as he plies his trade through postwar Europe. Sad, wordless comedy results from this vaudeville circuit, which is giving way to television and rock ’n’ roll. It’s all in Chomet’s talent for caricature, each character defined by a single, unchanging facial expression. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist, whose lips never move from a happy smile. There is a depressive clown with—what else?—a perpetual frown. There is a beaming, effeminate boy band that is putting them all out of business. Facing rows of empty seats, the magician himself exudes deadpan nobility, like an undertaker at his own funeral.
But when the magician stays at a rural Scottish inn, the girl who cleans his room is sheltered enough to believe in his tricks. When he leaves for the city of Edinburgh, he brings her along, and she discovers more adult kinds of enchantment, like the fancy clothes in a shop window. It’s a gentler version of the story told in Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard and the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Like those live-action films, The Illusionist creates luminous scenes of spiritual innocence. The one that broke my heart shows a teenage boy and girl, taking shelter from the night in the tempting glow of that department store window. Shadowed by Adam and Eve mannequins, this couple is the baby boom in all its vulnerability.
Chomet’s previous cartoon, The Triplets of Belleville, was pretty and nostalgic for its own sake. But here, his painterly vision of Scotland’s city lights and natural colors takes on the pathos of the performer’s spotlight, a sacred flame that will go out if a new generation does not believe in beauty. Chomet has also re-created the patient silent-comedy rhythm of Jacques Tati’s own movies, and drawn the magician to look and move like Jacques Tati did onscreen, all wrists and ankles and lower back. (Some may recognize the bumbling character as the inspiration for England’s Mr. Bean.) Chomet’s homage has been protested by Tati’s grandson as a betrayal of the man’s real life and artistic intentions. It has also been protested by film critics as a betrayal of Tati’s cinema, which spoofed the modern excess of commerce and technology.
Those critics have a point. First conceived in the 1950s, The Illusionist does not carry Tati’s social burlesque into the 21st century. Perhaps abandoned by Tati for painful personal reasons, it offers none of the hilarity of Tati’s slapstick designs. The true heir to Tati’s grand absurdism is filmmaker Roy Andersson. But Chomet does have Tati’s poetic ear for music and for the peculiar sounds of modern life, and his landscapes are gorgeous. Even if he violated Tati’s wishes, Chomet has found some true sentiment as he skirts sentimentality. Tati imagined himself as an overgrown schoolboy, charmingly oblivious to social pressure. By giving this character a taste of surrogate fatherhood, Chomet tells a different kind of romance. As a girl loses her faith in rabbits out of hats, her faith in human kindness blossoms, and so does ours.