Friday, January 14, 2011

New Film: The Illusionist (2010)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (L'illusionniste, 2010), from an unproduced script written by the great comedic master Jacques Tati (1907-1982) in the early 1950s* - at about the same time Manoel de Oliveira (b. 1908) penned his own 2010 release, The Strange Case of Angélica - represents one of the most clearly biographical entries in the late filmmaker's micro-sized corpus: modeled on Tati's dispiriting return to the music-hall circuit following the completion of his first feature Jour de fête (1949), The Illusionist centers on Monsieur Hulot's real-life alter-ego, Tatischeff, as he performs an outmoded magic act to a set of largely empty venues scattered across Paris and Britain.  Landing ultimately on a remote Scottish island, Tatischeff enchants a young teenage bar-girl, Alice, upon whom he takes pity, purchasing her a pair of strapped, bright-red shoes before setting off for the next destination in his itinerant tour.  Alice, however, clandestinely follows Tatischeff, joining her new middle-aged acquaintance on a vessel crossing back over to the mainland, with Alice suggesting Edinburgh as the next stop.  Tatischeff complies, taking the young woman as his roommate as he applies his trade at the city's Royal Music Hall.  With his act unable to supply Alice's increasing, if still modest material wants, Tatischeff ultimately takes on a series of odd jobs that uniformly conclude with the clumsy hero's termination.

Following the final, and most demeaning of his positions, where he performs his magic act to sell goods in a shop window - the town public seems far more willing to watch his performance in the context of consumer advertising than it was in attending his music-hall show - Tatischeff re-embarks on his travels, though without in this case both Alice and also his pet magic-show rabbit.  In the meantime, Alice has completed her transformation from a pubescent washer-girl dressed in rags to a young woman in love for the first time, and sporting a pair of high, white heels that only recently she could barely manage as she treacherously attempted to cross Edinburgh's cobblestone.  Tatischeff's departure thus coincides with Alice's attainment of sexual maturation, with the young woman preparing to leave her surrogate father for her new lover (which she does upon discovering Tatischeff's good-bye letter).  The Illusionist, in other words, presents a parable of a young woman's rise to adulthood, and of her shifting dependence from father-figure to new lover.  Whether the source of Tati's inspiration was his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, to whom Chomet dedicates the film, the director's illegitimate and abandoned daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel (a strong possibility given both the surrogate nature of the film's relationship and Helga's location in Northeast England) or most plausibly both, under Chomet's direction Tati's script proves unmistakably personal.

Of course, The Illusionist is also the work of Sylvain Chomet, and not only for the animated film's re-situation in Schiel's Britain and in 1959, with Tati's Mon Oncle (1958) playing in cinemas, and with effete rock-and-roll outfits pushing vaudeville acts like Tatischeff's out of auditoriums.  Most notably, Chomet brings an extraordinary sensitivity to and emphasis on lighting effects to his drawn work of cinema: The Illusionist's neon marquees, its blinking hotel sign, the warm diffused glow manufactured by a light-colored lampshade, the harsh white of a hanging bulb reflected off bathroom tile and the blinding morning light refracted by millions of dust particles all offer memorable visual effects.  So too does Chomet attend exceedingly to his film's places, especially to a luminous postwar Edinburgh, which like The Illusionist's attention to light sources suggest an animated cinema concerned foremost with reproducing reality - and in so doing, in doing what cinema achieves by virtue of its indexical contact with the outer world.  Even so, it is not a world robustly replicated in excessive detail, but rather one registered in sketchy outlines, impressionistically under-drawn by Chomet and his co-animators.

The Illusionist likewise affirms its insistence on the real in its comparative restriction to physical laws, thereby eschewing the animated medium's inherent phantasmagoria.  Chomet's strategy in this respect similarly attends to Tatischeff's claim that "magicians don't exist"; that is, The Illusionist refuses to break with the natural in most respects, save for the spring-loaded contortions of the picture's acrobatic trio, who directly recall the animator's Triplets of Belleville (2003).  (It should also be noted that the angular physicality displayed in Chomet's earlier work, along with the film's mumbling, multi-lingual soundtrack, both spring directly from Tati's cinematic universe.)  Nonetheless, even Chomet's least natural motif dovetails from a real-world, Tati-inspired source with The Illusionist's bouncing triplets proving reminiscent further of the circus subjects of the master's creditable televisual swan-song, Parade (1974).

Tati's directorial corpus, moreover, offers a source for The Illusionist's critical edge, though in this case it is the director's mid-career peak, comprising the referenced Mon Oncle (with the hand-drawn Tatischeff at one point watching the photographed Tati on a film screen) and the filmmaker's supreme masterpiece Play Time (1967), which offers the hermeneutic key, rather than the final stage that Parade instantiates; that is, it is the period of the film's original script that is pivotal in The Illusionist.  Specifically, it is the dialogue between old and new structuring both of the earlier works that Chomet re-introduces into The Illusionist, with Tatischeff's music-hall performances representing the past - a metonymy for the Paris of another era, as always - along with Alice's attempt at forging a community within their hotel, reaching out to a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic ventriloquist and a suicidal clown.  (Both are therefore dark counter-factual representations of the obsolete music-hall artist's fate.)  By comparison, the film's American-inspired modernity appears in Billy Boy & the Britoons rock show, a jukebox that literally replaces Tatischeff as the entertainment in the Scottish bar and a white-suited Chevrolet-driving American, whose vehicle Tatischeff looks after to comic effect.  (It should be noted, likewise, that Chomet himself composed the sweet, woodwind-dominated score, presented in contra-distinction to the film's diegetic pop music; the former recalls Francis Lemarque's morning-after theme and the work of Franck Barcellini and Alain Romans for the Parisian segment of Mon Oncle, whereas the latter reflects the modern forms most notable in Play Time's nightclub segment.)

In charting a disappearing culture of which Tatischeff is one of the last representatives, Tati via Chomet has produced a work that shares The Strange Case of Angélica's consideration of outmoded forms (in Oliveira's film this motif appears in the antiquated agricultural strategies that the director's grandson documents on a similarly out-of-date photo-chemical celluloid) and by extension a Europe that is losing its singularity.  Both Tati and Oliveira in other words rank among the great chroniclers of Europe's eclipse.  With Tatischeff reduced to hocking department store wares as the last of his venues cancels his theatrical engagement, The Illusionist emerges additionally as the most bathos-filled of Tati's films, perhaps not only as a result of Chomet's co-authorship, but also for the film's apparent autobiographical elements and especially for the film's clear debt to another key work of the early 1950s, Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952).  Indeed, The Illusionist suggests a different, more maudlin Tati than the poker-faced Keaton-style figure to which the viewer is most accustomed (not that this Tati wasn't also sentimental); in The Illusionist, Tatischeff proves positively Chaplinesque.

Note[*]:  See David Bellos's Jacques Tati, p. 153, for details on the script's authorship.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looks like we agree again.

Speaking of hermeneutic keys, have you seen Blue Valentine? I searched, but it seems not one critic has noted its being a riff on Jean Roche's Gare du Nord, complete with a direct homage. Anyway, I thought you'd find it interesting. The film itself...nothing special.