The Illusionist is a beautifully drawn animation – a tale of a magician desperately trying to survive on the dying music hall circuit – that brings its various settings (Paris, London and Scotland) to life in a breathtaking manner.
The semi-mute film by Sylvain Chomet is based on a script by French filmmaker Jacques Tati, known for his comedies starring himself as bumbling Monsieur Hulot – who served as the inspiration for its main character, an ageing magician. Tati, in turn, was influenced by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. These icons of the silent cinema rely on visual gags and awkward, angular movements, whilst portraying the individual’s struggles in a modern world. They have long been an inspiration for animators and Chomet extends this link.
Down on his luck, the illusionist leaves Paris and takes the ferry to England, accompanied by his white rabbit. In London he is upstaged by a British rock band (Billy Boy and the Britoons) and after an equally disastrous performance at a summer party – where a highly inebriated Scot in a kilt invites him to up to his pub on a Scottish island – he makes his way up to Scotland.
Finally, he finds an appreciative audience in the pub and soon strikes up a friendship with a poor local girl, Alice, who believes he can conjure up anything – from snow (a delightful goose feather storm caused by a woman stuffing a pillow) to shiny red shoes. She follows him to Edinburgh where the pair book into a hotel and the illusionist tries to find work, with rapidly diminishing success.
Their innocent friendship reminded me, in some ways, of Leon where the 12-year-old Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman, and her neighbour, the professional assassin (Jean Reno), who reluctantly takes care of her after her entire family is killed. They too live in a series of hotel rooms.
Alice is more naïve, though, and seems to believe that all the things she glimpses and desires in the shop windows – a new coat and expensive high heels – turn up in her hotel room by magic. The illusionist becomes a father figure and spends his rapidly diminishing cash reserves on keeping her happy. To keep her in style, he takes on a series of low-level jobs, from working in a garage to practising magic in a department store shop window to sell their wares.
As his confidence in himself and his magic dwindles (his neighbours in the hotel, a suicidal clown and a ventriloquist, sink even lower and literally end up in the gutter), Alice blossoms into a fashionable young lady and finds love in the shape of a handsome young man whom she glimpses from her hotel window in a neighbouring house. (Their fairy tale romance is balanced by a scene where youths beat up a tramp.)
Her taken care of, the illusionist, disheartened, takes his props to a pawnshop and sets his rabbit free on Arthur’s Seat, the mountain overlooking Edinburgh, and takes the train down to London. He leaves a note for Alice that says “Magicians do not exist”.
While the plot is simple, this is not a sugary Walt Disney animation. There are various messages here about consumerism and the way a parent can become a magician in the eyes of a child and how that magic is destroyed. As well as a moving, utterly sad portrait of the artist who watches himself become an anachronism. For him, there is no happy end.
When I went to see the film I’d forgotten that it has become the subject of a bitter row after Chomet received the script from Tati’s daughter Sophie and dedicated The Illusionist to her. However, the family of Tati’s illegitimate eldest child, Hela Marie-Jeanne Schiel, argues that she inspired the film and that it shows Tati’s sense of guilt and is an attempt to redeem himself after abandoning his first child.
To most viewers, this is not relevant. The Illusionist is one of the most exquisite animations you’ll ever see, with an amazing attention to detail and a real sense of the places it depicts, in particular Edinburgh. I loved Belleville Rendezvous, Chomet’s previous animated film (2003), but The Illusionist is even more special. It takes animation to a new level – without CGI (apart from one stunning 3D scene where the camera swoops down on Edinburgh and up again to give a panoramic view of the city), through old-fashioned drawing.