Magical qualities of Jacques Tati brought to life in this very human story

The Illusionist brings Jacques Tati to life onscreen once more in his previously unproduced screenplay about a magician at the end of his career. The famous French director and actor in Playtime and Mon Oncle wrote the screenplay over 50 years ago. His story is about the end of belief in magic so it is fitting that it has been told by director Sylvain Chomet whose outstanding animation in The Triplets of Belleville is both fantastical and lifelike.

Opening in Paris 1959 the film follows Tatischeff a magician past his prime who bounces around musical halls performing simplistic slight of hands. His act is imperfect with an uncontrollable rabbit cards bumbling out of his hands. Though the act lacks finesse the magician moves with the strange lanky elegance of Tati sharing his rigid bowing posture dressed in his iconic trench and too-short pants. Here the mannerisms and appearance are an excellent take on the magician and while the character is familiar he is fleshed out by detailed facial emotions.

This is of course a film about Tatischeff — not Mr. Hulot Tati’s famed character. With the popularity of his act waning the unemployed magician travels to Britain finding himself more irrelevant when he’s booked after a pop band Billy Boy and the Britoons. Interestingly Tati wrote the script in 1956 and one wonders what a live version of the story filmed a few years later during Beatlemania might have looked like.

Tatischeff travels to rural Scotland. There a young girl is entranced by his act and when he shows her a small act of kindness she follows him on the road to Edinburgh. They move into a boarding house with other forgotten vaudeville players (including a suicidal clown and a depressed ventriloquist). The girl cooks and cleans and Tatischeff spoils her with new clothing and shoes but more importantly amazes her by maintaining his slight-of-hand tricks. Forced to keep up his act for her sake he takes a night job at a garage. This leads to some wonderful physical humour very much in the style of Mr. Hulot. With time the girl grows up and Tatischeff loses his belief in his act giving it up altogether.

The story is told in the same manner as The Triplets of Belleville — that is with a lack of dialogue and a moving score. But without dialogue The Illusionist manages to be emotionally stirring. The tone is easily set as whimsical one moment and melancholy the next. Visually it is as detailed and rich in colour and mood as Triplets : Here theatres and apartments are tangibly musty Scottish rain perfectly gloomy and Edinburgh’s streets and architecture accentuated into a fantastical setting. This is the biggest strength of the film: It creates a magical visual experience to complement the story of a magician who begins to lose sight of his illusion.

The relationship between Tatischeff and the girl is a sweet one though their story is quite human even heart-breaking. It culminates with melancholy reflection something that is more compelling than Triplets mostly because of its emotional weight. It’s no surprise either; Tati wrote the script for his estranged daughter Sophie lending an autobiographical element to the story. Sophie had approached Chomet with her father’s screenplay suggesting that capturing Tati on film (he passed away in 1982) might work if the story was animated. After his death Chomet went on to make Triplets and his rich visual style complements Tati’s story. Due to the whimsical and detailed nature of his films The Illusionist has been nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards.