Movie Review: The Illusionist (L'illusionniste)
The Charlotte Observer
When we’re told a blind date has a great personality, we usually conclude no beauty contest winner awaits us. It works the other way in film: When you’re told a movie is great-looking, you can guess that’s a code word for “slow,” “uneventful” and/or “bland.”
Director Sylvain Chomet set the bar high for himself in 2003 with the witty, offbeat “Triplets of Belleville,” which rightly earned an Oscar nomination as best animated film.
But he limbos under that bar with the very different “Illusionist,” which he rewrote from an unfilmed screenplay by the late Jacques Tati. (It also received an Oscar nomination, in a weak year for animation.) It’s beautifully drawn – really drawn, with hardly any computer effects – and has an elegiac tone and bits of quirky humor. But it wouldn’t win a footrace with a snail, and the narrative amounts to nothing.
The title character is the modestly skilled magician Tatischeff, who scrapes from Paris to London to a Scottish pub trying to sell his act. (Tatischeff was Tati’s real name.) He meets a maid, who travels with him to Edinburgh, and they room in a boardinghouse for theatrical folk, where acrobats vault up the stairs and a chattering dummy answers the ventriloquist’s door.
Tatischeff sleeps chastely on the sofa, while the girl (who’s perhaps 16) uses the bedroom, dreaming of lovely dresses and shoes. He takes extra jobs as the night man in a garage and as a department store demonstrator, but his bankroll runs low. She meets a pleasant fellow who can do better and goes out with him.
There’s no suggestion that Tatischeff desires her sexually or finds her stimulating in any way. Neither he nor she seems especially lonely, so their companionship is arbitrary. Chomet tells this story virtually without dialogue, and he can’t or won’t illuminate the relationship further.
Tatischeff is based on his original creator: tall, slightly stooped, politely sober-faced and baffled by the bustle of the modern world. (In this case, 1959.) There’s a witty bit where Tatischeff stumbles into a theater playing “Mon Oncle”; he watches Jacques Tati on-screen and unconsciously echoes his movements.
But Tati’s comedy, like Buster Keaton’s, depended on the nimbleness of a very real body. Put into danger or consternation, he had to defy physical limitations to escape, and we marveled at his deftness. Animation works exactly the opposite way: Anything is possible on-screen, so Tatischeff’s near-mishaps in the garage create no tension.
I don’t mean to sound too negative about a film that gives pleasure in small ways. Lilting music sets the mood; beautifully lit camera work strengthens that mood; the visual design is impeccable.
Yet in this case, the real title character is Chomet. He keeps us waiting for a narrative payoff that will equal that visual splendor, and he makes us think that many small inspired touches will add up to something memorable. But when he opens his hand at last, there’s nothing in it.