Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Sylvain Chomet, director & co-script w/Jacques Tati & Henri Marquet
Animated feature inspired by Tati w/the voices of Jean-Claude Donda (Tatischeff), Eilidh Rankin (the chambermaid)
The great comic Jacques Tati was a beloved worldwide figure, known for his beautifully choreographed sight gags and sly comments on society’s follies. Jour de Fete, Mon oncle and Les vacances de M. Hulot were huge international hits in the 1950s with Tati’s direction and scripts being recognized through a multiplicity of awards including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Above all, Tati, a brilliant mime, became associated with his greatest creation, Monsieur Hulot, a bemused, distant but amiable character, who offered a slight narrative through line for his episodic film plots.
Now, animator Sylvain Chomet, the acclaimed director of the droll and beautifully executed animation feature Les triplettes de Belleville, has made a homage to Tati. It’s an extraordinary gesture by a contemporary artist to someone who clearly inspired and influenced his work. The Illusionist is based on an unproduced screenplay by Tati and, like many of his films, stars himself as a participant and commentator on a modern dilemma.
Through the precise and gorgeously rendered animation of Chomet and his team, the great mime is back as Tatischeff, his ancestral family name. It’s 1958 and the clown Tatischeff is performing in cabaret shows on off nights in cinemas in rural Scotland. In one spot, the local hotel’s chambermaid decides to run away with the circus and finds a paternal comrade in the angular, charming clown.
They settle in Edinburgh for a while, with both struggling to find work. Once again, Tati has left us with a theme: the death of live performance in the late ’50s and early ’60s as TV finished off the audiences for old style music hall actors, singers, dancers and clowns. In fact, even neighbourhood cinemas are dying: at one point, the out-of-work Tatischeff wanders into a local screening of Mon Oncle only to find that the crowds aren’t coming to foreign Oscar winners.
Does The Illusionist work? Only intermittently. It would be wonderful to extol this film as Tati’s last masterpiece but there’s a reason why the old master abandoned the script. The relationship between the clown and the chambermaid makes no sense. Tati scholars have suggested that he wrote The Illusionist for his beloved daughter, Sophie or for his first, and abandoned, daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel.
In any case, if the chambermaid isn’t his daughter, their “no sparks,” completely supportive friendship doesn’t work dramatically. And even for Tati, the meandering story of The Illusionist lacks passion or narrative thrust. The random episodes don’t add up to anything, unlike, say, Mon Oncle.
Still, there are wonderful scenes throughout the film. Tatischeff’s comedy routines are vivid and amusing. Chomet’s design team, many of whom are Scottish, beautifully evokes Edinburgh, one of Europe’s greatest cities. The sky, the light, the architecture, the city landscape: all are there in glorious detail. And the scene with Tati in Mon Oncle and Tatischeff in The Illusionist is priceless.
A confession: I love old style animation. I appreciate and admire Tati. So I’m totally charmed by The Illusionist. You might not be–and you might not be wrong. But I’ll carry on enjoying this movie and admiring Sylvain Chomet’s humble and beautiful tribute to a cinema idol and genius.