Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The Illusionist (2010)
"The Disappearing Act"
"We Liked His Earlier, Funny Ones..."
The French comic/film-maker Jacques Tati left one unproduced screenplay when he died in 1982. That script, entitled "Film Tati Nº 4," is the basis for animator Sylvain Chomet's first feature after The Triplettes of Belleville, The Illusionist (or L'Illusionniste). It is a lettre d'amour to Tati, with a main character resembling the French Master in size, style and manner (right down to the examination of the world with hands placed on the back of one's hips), directed in the same spare long-shot frame that allows disaster to occur from corner to corner. It has the same errant mechanics (the sense that what could go wrong will go wrong), the ironic timing and "marking time" quality of Tati's films, in the elegantly focussed manner of silent films with sound effects.
But, it is a special case. Tati wrote this after Mon Oncle and never made it, for whatever reason, coming down to mostly personal grief...but over whom is much in dispute. Tati had two daughters, a child-out-of wedlock whom he abandoned, named Helga, and his legitimate daughter Sophie. Tati was going to make the film with Sophie in the 1960's, but never did. His estrangement from his daughters weighed heavily on him, and the result—this melancholy little mea culpa—might have seemed as cheer-dousing as Charlie Chaplin playing McBeth. Or, it was simply too close to commit to.
A not-too-well-considered prestidigitater, Tatischeff (Tati's real name, by the way) is pulling a living out of his hat on a low-rent club circuit. It is 1956, and rock n' roll is filling the theaters, and television is emptying the minds. Tatischeff can't compete with his props and particularly ill-mannered rabbit (he bites!) and he plays empty halls to little applause. An invitation to perform at a private party in Scotland turns out relatively well, and he stays, making the acquaintance of Alice, who works the tavern and sees Tatischeff as a genuine magician. Noting the condition of her shoes, he buys her a nice pair of red ones, leaving her convinced her that actual magic can happen.
On a trip to Edinburgh,* he discovers that Alice has followed him without a ticket. He buys her one, and the two travel the rest of the way together and settle in the city in a flop-house for performers. While Tatischeff performs to the dwindling crowds at the Music Hall, Alice cooks, cleans, becomes the roving ambassador to the other performers and wanders the streets looking at the promises of a better life in Edinburgh shop-windows.
The relationship between performer and waif is completely a father-daughter relationship. He is a bit aloof, but tries to provide for her dreams by taking on a series of increasingly demeaning jobs, which he manages to pull off with uneasy aplomb. She cares for him, but looks to the horizon. At some point, his job is to let her go...to perform his own disappearing act in her life, if she is to have one. Bittersweet, to be sure.
The Illusionist also has up is sleeve the constant thread that everything is an illusion: performers and artisans put their best face forward, we hide behind masks, we project elegance, we learn as we go becoming expert only after trial and error, and there is nothing so false as the entertainment industry with its sad clowns, facile crooners and feathered chorines. There are no inner lives on stage, only the projection of illusion, a made-up false-front for reality.
Rich in detail and sub-text, it's the sort of quietly deep-thinking comedy that has mostly been absent since Tati passed, and though it has its laugh-out-loud moments, it is mostly a meditation on the transitory nature of life, how we dress it up, corral the chaos, change it, make it into reality only to see it fade and move on. It is partially performance, partially illusion, but we are constantly changing, turning something into something else. Life is what we make it and what it makes us.
The Illusionist is a Full-Price Ticket.
* I've been to Edinburgh—it's where Chomet's studio, Django films was located—and the recreation of the city is amazing. There were all the places I'd seen, but all in the wrong place, a scrambled Edinburgh that doesn't lose any of its charm.