Director: Sylvain Chomet
Jacques Tati had a cunning eye for finding humanity through the use of complicated setpieces and quietly heartbreaking humor. Whether he was at the beach, the city or on the highway, he had a way to make us laugh about the senselessness we allow to rule our lives.
When he died in 1982 he had been at work on a story about a magician who befriends a young woman and finds hope in a world where he's no longer needed.
Years later, the extraordinary Sylvain Chomet adapted this screenplay to bid adieu to Tati with The Illusionist.
Chomet, best known for his quirky work in The Triplets of Belleville, took Tati and literally turned him into the animated figure he played in his movies.
The main character here is Tatischeff, a French magician trying to find audiences to entertain as rock bands and pop artists take over the world.
In the opening scene we see him struggle with his hat-rabbit and the lack of an audience, who leave the theater once the musical group stops playing (the group is a wonderful hybrid of Elvis Presley and The Beatles). We understand that Tatischeff has become a second rate act.
Later when he loses his rabbit, a theater employer brings over a rat. Tatischeff explains to him that this particular rodent doesn't belong to him but Chomet has told us all we need to know about this man.
Few working directors have the lyrical economy of Chomet. With a mere strokes, and usually without dialog, he is able to encompass such a large array of emotions that it's no wonder he took onto this project.
Like Tati, and to a certain degree like Chaplin (who Tati arguably paid homage to), Chomet creates entire worlds in tiny episodes. The stylized work of the animators in The Illusionist have precious qualities that could border on caricature (which they technically are) but usually as seen as mature embodiments of more transcendental elements.
It's impossible not to see the smoky decadence of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich in a chanteuse we only get a glimpse of and once we learn about the autobiographical nature of the film we are just left in awe of Tati's great intellect and heart.
We see how Tatischeff has to travel all over looking for audiences that will let themselves be enchanted by his tricks.
During one of these travels to a remote Scottish pub, he meets a young girl named Alice who becomes enthralled by what she considers to be real magic.
Alice becomes the magician's loyal follower and travels with him to Edinburgh where during the day, he presents her with lavish presents-by way of his magic-and at night tries to earn a living by doing "regular" jobs.
The sequences where he works as an advertising painter and a car parking guard are sensational and provide us with little gags that particularly recall Playtime.
Tatischeff is a combination of Tati himself and Mr. Hulot and through him the film talks to us in a subtle meta language that carefully leads us to ask ourselves where does the man end and the artist begins.
This is perhaps the central theme of the movie given that the screenplay was supposed to be an apology to one of Tati's estranged daughters.
Seeing the way in which Tatischeff tries hard to please Alice but finds himself unable to keep up the charade for too long speaks not only of Tati's real life or even of a father and daughter, it has something deeper to say about the magic of movies themselves.
Too often movies try hard to mimic reality and become projections of our world that seem all too real and identifiable.
The Illusionist however reminds us that movies are the ultimate illusion; as hard as they try they will always be shadows of a universe we only think we know. The movie then offers sequences where we see the process of movie making in miniature.
During one scene Alice stares out a window while outside an old lady has an accident with feathers which fly through the air creating the impression of snow. Alice rushes to light a fire to keep warm and only later realizes her mistake.
The truth is however that she fails to see that for a minute the phenomenon was real because she saw it. This leads us to yet another important part of film making which is taking into consideration the things the audience never sees. The behind the cameras process if you like, which we also see here in a hilarious moment when Alice fails to get water when she opens the faucet (take notice of how Chomet frames these moments using mirrors, windows or doors that recall movie screens).
This willing ignorance on our part makes us not gullible but naively enthralled by things that seem to have escaped from our wildest dreams.
However what happens when these illusions disappoint us? We see this in Tatischeff himself who comes to realize that, hard as he tries, there's only so much magic the world is willing to take.
The Illusionist is a heartbreaking work of art that deals with melancholy and the artistic process, yet pulls off the ultimate trick: through its nostalgic palette and carefully constructed characters it reminds us that magic is real for as long as we wish to believe in it.