Melancholy magic

Adventure ensues when The Illusionist’s protagonist heads to Scotland after finding himself jobless

Though the story is told mostly through brief, indistinguishable and heavily-accented dialogue, Dean-Claude Donda manages to voice the role of an illusionist with wounded pride. His ill-tempered rabbit accompanies him on his long and slow journey to a remote island where they find an audience for a short time.
Though the story is told mostly through brief, indistinguishable and heavily-accented dialogue, Dean-Claude Donda manages to voice the role of an illusionist with wounded pride. His ill-tempered rabbit accompanies him on his long and slow journey to a remote island where they find an audience for a short time.
Credit: 
Supplied
Jacques Tati wrote The Illusionist in an attempt to reach out to his estranged daughter, a gesture represented in the development of Alice and the illusionist’s father-daughter bond.
Jacques Tati wrote The Illusionist in an attempt to reach out to his estranged daughter, a gesture represented in the development of Alice and the illusionist’s father-daughter bond.
Credit: 
Supplied

Movie: The Illusionist
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Duration: 80 minutes

5 out of 5 stars

There’s something rather beautiful about The Illusionist. In its 80-minute bit of silence and tiny character grumbles, so much melancholy and humour is conveyed. It’s like a ballerina dancing on a coffin. The film is narrowed to a selective audience, so it will not find its way through the mainstream crowd.

But I was riveted. It shames the predictable emotions of Toy Story 3 and its overpacked story (which won the Oscar for Best Animated Film).

The Illusionist is so majestic. Its laughs are so modestly clever you could miss them. The comedy is much to do with the characters’ enchantment and fascination with their world and ultimately their rejection of it—and themselves. In a world developing itself off the commercialism, exploitation and subterfuge of pop culture, there is just no place for magicians anymore. This reminds me of the tragic state of cinema itself nowadays. The Illusionist, I found, spoke so much.

The film tells the story of an unnamed illusionist (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) who moves about his day doing performances in empty theatres. When there are people, they are bemused by the illusionist’s tricks. It takes an awkward silence or the manager of the theatre to prompt the applause. The implication is that there is no room for minimalism anymore. The illusionist’s prestidigitations are simple, delightful but—in this ever-changing world—equally banal. In a world losing touch with “magic” can an illusionist truly be magical?

He meets the acquaintance of a young girl Alice (voiced by Eilidh Rankin) and she has faith in this elderly magician. She believes in his slight of hand and that there is a place in this world for his kind. The two embark on a trip that doesn’t accede to the likes of cheap happiness, but fitting melancholy. There’s no other way to tell this story right.

The Illusionist is based on an unfinished script written by mime, actor and director Jacques Tati and it shows. Much of the architecture has a Gothic texture, with pointed arches, large windows, symmetrical shapes and tracery. It follows a passive, shy man as he wanders locales, fascinated and horrified by the dramatic and tragic shift in urban structure. There is a bittersweet goofiness in the process where decor becomes decorations and props for terrific sight gags, much like the inventiveness of Tati’s masterpiece Playtime.

Most importantly, Tati wrote The Illusionist as a reach-out to his estranged daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, whom he abandoned when she was a baby. Tati’s regret and pathos are prevalent, but so is his wit. This is a rueful act that never becomes a homily on lost generations or the downfall of originality. It’s so engaging to watch Alice and the illusionist’s relationship spring up into a tender rapport between a father and his daughter.

As the illusionist moves aimlessly about the city, he enters a theatre playing Mon Oncle, an iconic 1958 Tati film about the elderly Monsieur Hulot who is unable to adjust to the proliferation of modern technology. The greatest paradox, and maybe satirical punch, is that Tati was a wild exploiter of technology. He loved to strip it down, bend it, and pull it out of proportion as a gag—but also to reveal its imperfections.

The Illusionist doesn’t quite reach Tati’s élan, but who could? It’s a film of suggestion, long shots without dialogue that convey more ‘dialogue’ than a series of forced close-ups and long-winded banter. The illusionist’s world is not meant for leisure but a place of considerable agony. When he tries to promote a perfume through magic, he realizes he is just becoming another product himself.

The film understands that and doesn’t alienate what it attacks—modernization and urbanization—but uses it as a symbol of fading talents, who are not fit for this world anymore.

The Illusionist isn’t anything in the way of drama, terrific laughter or fast-pacing. It’s quiet, patient but effective. Its silence speaks more than we can imagine. It’s a great magic trick that doesn’t need to be applauded, but witnessed.

The Illusionist starts at The Screening Room tomorrow night. See moviesinkingston.com for ticket details.

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