Sylvain Chomet has made a film for me. Imagine my surprise when I sat down for a screening of The Illusionist to find that it had been handmade to my specifications. It was a little awkward at first, as it is always is when someone you’ve never met gives you an excessively generous gift, but I decided to go with it. I even allowed other people to stay and watch it with me. Chomet must have somehow found out that animation, magic and Jacques Tati are some of my very favourite things, and has managed to paint them into a glorious whole. He missed my memo about commissioning a score by Tom Waits and a resurrected Django Reinhardt in favour of music he wrote himself, but I can’t have it all my own way, I guess.
Animation is about talking animals, singing and dancing, bright colours and happy happy things, isn’t it? No. That’s a particularly tenacious Disney-shaped template which has held sway over the form for decades, but it’s certainly not a default setting. Replacing those elements with a melancholy, contemplative and almost plotless eighty-minute excursus on nostalgia and the thoughtless, inhumane creep of modernity, Chomet has bucked those trends to produce a thoroughly unfashionable film about the fragility of beautiful things.
The story is simple. In Paris, 1959, a conjuror’s audiences are dwindling in numbers and levels of interest. His spectators are non-plussed by his old-school, rabbit-grabbing tricks. His manager sends him on tour, but in London he finds his act still out of step with the blossoming rock n’ roll culture. He heads north to Scotland, where he finds village life less polluted by modernity’s distractions, before settling into a season of performances in Edinburgh. A young Czech girl tags along with him, keen to escape the remote Scottish village, and they strike up a tentative friendship, as he takes on extra work to provide her with the little luxuries for which she is developing a taste. She becomes his most important audience member – if he can keep up the illusion for her that he really has magical capabilities, he will be able to protect her from the pitfalls of modern life. As in the Hulot movies, there is only as much story as is needed to hang the themes on. There are mostly places, and people in them.
The Illusionist is based on a screenplay Tati wrote between the making of Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). Depending on which account you believe, it was either dedicated to his daughter Sophie Tatischeff (1946 – 2001), to apologise for being absent a lot while she was growing up, and never filmed because Tati had injured his hand in the fireworks sequence at the end of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and found himself unable to perform the magic tricks the role required, or it was a confessional piece written as the only acknowledgement of his illegitimate daughter: this version of events has been most passionately advocated by Richard Tatischeff McDonald, who has written to prominent critics including Roger Ebert to explain what he sees as the true origins of the script, and the deceitfulness of Chomet’s film. Because Chomet has dedicated the film to Sophie Tatischeff, from whom he claims the script came with her blessing, McDonald believes The Illusionist in its current form covers up the confession which Tati had intended to give, though indirectly, through his script. It is therefore a betrayal of, rather than a tribute to Tati. This version of events is certainly compelling, and adds an extra layer of fascination and enigma to the film. It is not intended to ventriloquise Tati and change his story, and it in telling a tale of a man and a surrogate daughter from whom he becomes estranged as he loses his power to enchant and delight, it can be interpreted in many ways, either as an apology to a particular individual, or as a more diffuse outpouring of regret and melancholy. Via Monsieur Hulot in particular, Tati was always expert at situating minute, individuated actions within universalist socio-cultural commentary. Whatever he had wanted the screenplay of The Illusionist to say, he hadn’t wanted to say directly, and Chomet’s film preserves that hesitancy, that evasiveness. It is Chomet’s film, not Tati’s, but more importantly, it is now also ours, and we can use it, along with the competing accounts of McDonald and others, to explore its origins, inferences, influences and allusions in whatever way we choose. That is the power that we have as consumers and readers of cultural texts that are handed down to us.
Chomet has taken on board the Hulot thesis of an old-fashioned individual in polite conflict with modernity, and the death of music hall, the establishment of recorded media in place of personal craft forms a backdrop to the story: in the Scottish pub where Tatischeff performs, his act is the warm-up for the juke-box that provides a more exciting evening’s entertainment for the locals; in London, he is upstaged by a Brit-pop combo of gangling young men who shake their pelvi and declare their adoration for their screaming female mobs, but transform into effete, mincing airheads backstage. Hulot never swam against the tide of modernity – he just tried to stay upright as it swept him along. Although it slots into the anti-modern agenda Tati was developing in Mon Oncle, and which he would fully realise in Playtime, Chomet’s film doesn’t pretend to complete the arc of the development and do Tati’s work for him. It reflects upon that career and even implicates cinema in the deterioration of entertainment culture, something which Tati never did in his films.
There’s a scene in The Illusionist that will bury the needle on every viewer’s meta detector: having wondered by mistake into Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema showing Mon Oncle, Tatischeff (Tati’s real name) appears to recoil in fright at the sight of his surrogate self on screen.This is either a crafty in-joke, a nod to a specific location in the city Chomet clearly adores (there are plenty of actual landmarks, shops and on show, as well as some spoofs such as the McDonnauld’s restaurant and the Blair and Brown Pawnbrokers), or a sign that the film doesn’t just want to adapt Tati’s script, but to reconstitute him as a cinematic presence – the cartoon Tati flees his image, though viewers familiar with Tati will not see this scene as investing him with a fearsome spirit, but rather an ironic moment that validates Tati himself as resistant to the ignominies of being overlooked: it takes the sting out of seeing Tatischeff alone and unloved, because we can see the “real” Tati in his most successful guise, being celebrated.
At first glance, the film seems mean in its conclusion that all beautiful things are shoved out of the way by inferior modern cultures. But it is also ambiguous in doing so. Alice’s horizons are expanded by her visits to the city, even as Tatischeff’s are pinched and thwarted. Even though he has failed to ignite a mass audience in Edinburgh, he has won over the audience of The Illusionist: this is a film that eulogises the outmoded, and allows that audience to feel a superior affection for those antiques of entertainment. Tied into that memorialisation is the film’s nostalgic use of cel animation, which always brings with it a cache of vintage prestige. The textures of imagery, the warmth of the paint are very beautiful, yet it is almost invariably enhanced with digital effects that add rain, water, 3D vehicles and environments; if the film on paper wants to stress the inferiority of new media, in practice it demonstrates a genuine harmonisation of digital and analogue processes in producing a delightful whole – only a late “aerial” shot circling the city is an unwelcome interjection of excessive CGI. A beautifully composed image is one which gathers its components together so that they work together, each one complementing or counterposing its frame-mates (though we mustn’t hold up all films to the same compositional expectations – deviation from aesthetic standards confers its own rewards and effects); it is one that doesn’t “collapse” no matter where you look: nothing is incongruous, misaligned, jarring or misplaced unless designed for effect to be that way. For the most part, The Illusionist manages to keep its imagery balanced in a blend of approaches and sources that display an inter-generational fusion of sympathetic elements. It’s also funny and sweet. I nearly forgot to point that out.
Vanessa Thorpe, “Jacques Tati’s lost film reveals family’s pain.” The Guardian.