It's Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to The Triplets of Belleville, based on an unproduced 1956 script by Jacques Tati (1907-1982). It's a beautiful piece of work, but I found it terribly sad.
Firstly, Tati. I've never seen a Jacques Tati film, but my parents have and they said that Chomet's film feels just like him. The film's main character is a caricature of Tati and it's set in the late 1950s, when the live-action version of this film would have been released had Tati made it. ("Khrushchev and Nixon have war of words!" "Could it be war?") Tati was a comedic writer, director and actor who didn't actually make that many films, but repeatedly reinvented himself and blew everyone away when he did. He's the kind of figure who gets mentioned alongside names like Bergman, Kubrick, Hitchcock and Wilder. One day, I really must watch his films.
That said, there's controversy about The Illusionist. Everyone agrees that it's about Tati's relationship with one of his daughters, but not about which one. Chomet says it was written for Sophie Tatischeff, out of guilt for spending too long away from her when he was working. (Tati's father was a Russian general and his real name was Tatischeff.) Sophie's the one who gave Chomet the screenplay in 2000, two years before her death. However Tati also had an illegitimate and estranged eldest child, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, who thinks it's about her instead.
I'm not going to weigh in on this. The film's about a relationship between an older man and a younger girl. This does indeed map well on to a father-daughter relationship. However I don't see any justification for screams of "it's me, me, me". Everyone's entitled to their personal feelings, yes, but what we have here is a film made in 2010. End of story. How good is it?
Answer: lovely, but faintly distressing. It's way less fun than The Triplets of Belleville, although that was clearly the intention.
There are two ways in which you might find this a downer. The first is the central relationship. The main character, Tatischeff, is a stage magician who finds himself associating with a young girl, Alice, who thinks his magic is real. They live together, with Tatischeff sleeping on the couch so that she can take his bed. He buys her shoes and clothes. Desperately short of money, he takes increasingly menial jobs to try to support her... but then she goes off with a handsome young man.
That makes it sound more brutal than it is, though. In fact, it's delicate and almost haunting in its autumnal notes. Tatischeff finds out about Alice's man, who incidentally seems like a nice, well-mannered chap. In the end, it's Tatischeff who goes away, leaving money and a note on the table. If you've picked up on the intended pseudo-parental angle and aren't just seeing this as a potential May-December romance, then this is a fitting ending. My mum liked it.
Sadder, for me, were the earlier scenes where Alice is trying to be with Tatischeff, but he's giving her the brush-off because he's busy with his new employment. He's found another temporary job. Effectively, he drives her to go to the other man.
I will point out, though, that you could be forgiven for not picking up all of Chomet's intended readings, because dialogue has arguably been reduced beyond the minimum. It's also in lots of different languages. Tatischeff speaks French, Alice speaks Scottish Gaelic, my guess is that that ventriloquist speaks German and none of it's subtitled. In other words, it's a silent film with a soundtrack, both like The Triplets of Belleville and also a lot like the films of Tati himself. Buster Keaton reportedly said that Tati's work had carried on the true tradition of silent cinema. Anyway, the result of all this is that plot points aren't always clear. You've got to infer what Alice thinks from her body language. Tatischeff's career path is in some ways crystal clear, but equally you might want a rewatch to build a narrative chain from the disconnected links of "Paris theatre", "London rock band" and "Scottish island".
Similarly, look at the rabbit's character journey. Is there a story there? Did it always have those feelings for Tatischeff under its evil-tempered exterior, or did Alice tame it? I don't know. I'd assumed the former, but the latter also seems plausible. Whichever it is, though, I love that rabbit. It's so obnoxious early on (although I don't blame him, living on its own in that tiny cage), but then later in the film it'll hop on Tatischeff's chest as if to say "get out of bed".
Then there's the other reason for finding this a downer, which is the end of Tatischeff's way of life. He's a stage magician, but business is so bad that, eventually, he quits. The implication is that modern forms of entertainment (TV, cinema, rock bands) are driving the old music halls to extinction. The clown with his noose, the ventriloquist's dummy that in the end can't even be given away for free... yowch. The latter in particular is a heartbreaker. The lights go out one last time and the illusionist refuses to perform one last illusion on the train. It was like a long drawn-out death rattle to see him struggle at all those part-time jobs.
Tatischeff's relationship with Alice isn't meant to be depressing, although it will be for many people who either don't know or don't care about the real-life circumstances of why the script was written. The step by step destruction of what Tatischeff is, though, is merciless. An industry is dying. Today, it's dead. This film is performing an autopsy.
All that said, though, the film is even more beautiful to look at than was The Triplets of Belleville. The computer-rendered vehicles were occasionally distracting, especially the one on Iona, but Chomet's use of colour is to die for. The sun slowly coming out is incredible. The background paintings of Scotland in particular are perfect, as colours fade into the misty distance. I adored the shot near the end where we're looking down on falling rain. As for the animation, it's delicate and rendering characters whose acting is sensitive and closely observed, but, of all things, understated. This is almost unknown. Animation is a medium of physical overacting. That's normally the whole point, but Chomet's breaking that rule. It's the kind of sensitivity you'd normally only get from Miyazaki.
The geographical fidelity is also like Miyazaki, incidentally. Edinburgh is utterly Edinburgh, for instance. You almost feel as if you could walk home from what you're seeing to your guest house.
There are also Chomet caricatures, of course. That stick-thin, wiggling, smoking singer at the beginning is amazing. Billy Boy and the Britoons are hysterical, with the contrast between their hard-rocking stage personas and how they flounce behind the scenes. The most impressive thing though is that such outrageous character designs and genuinely funny comedy are integrated seamlessly in this mournful story, whose tone isn't undermined at all.
This film is an eighty-minute work of art and a demonstration of why animation is wonderful. The animated acting is precise and subtle. It's also often funny. That bloke rolling down the hill, for instance, made me laugh, but at the same time I was struck by how Chomet refuses to milk it. Scenes like that almost feel in a hurry to cut away, teasing us with the film's wit instead of putting it centre-screen. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year, which I can absolutely agree with. However, at the same time, it's nowhere near as entertaining as The Triplets of Belleville and indeed will be, for many people, mildly harrowing. It's good. No, let me correct myself; it's brilliant. However I'd hesitate to recommend it too casually.