WARNING: I give pretty much the whole plot away here.
Sylvain Chomet’s film The Illusionist is his follow up to his animated debut feature Belleville Rendezvous, a warm celebration of stubborn eccentricity and the resilience of old age. Here, he adapts an unfilmed script by Jacques Tati, making explicit the influence of the director and his comedy personae on his previous work. Both share a preference for the more ramshackle traditional ways of life over the glittering temptations of modernity, and both have an eye for the absurd detail. Chomet paid direct homage to Tati in Belleville Rendezvous. The grandmother of the little boy who grows up to be a cycling obsessive has a weathervane modelled on Tati’s postman from L’Ecole des Facteurs and Jour de Fete perching atop her roof, erect and straight-backed in his saddle. Later, the three triplettes of Belleville, aged ex-nightclub singers, watch Jour de Fete on their television and we know that they and the grandmother inhabit the same world and will get on. The Illusionist shares Belleville Rendezvous’ love of the grotesque, with figures such as the vulture-like chansonniere and the three constantly-somersaulting acrobats drawn with a charicaturist’s distorting eye. But this is a film with a melancholy heart, which observes the fading away of a world and the people who built their lives around it. It is a passing which diminishes the wider world, Chomet and Tati suggest, a loss of innocence which reduces its store of magic.
The central character is Tatischeff the stage magician, or illusionist, a direct portrayal of Tati himself (Tatischeff being his real, non-shortened name) in slightly altered Hulot form. There is no pipe, raincoat or hat, rather a brown suit turning pink for the stage, where he creates a more fanciful reality. All the other gestures are intact, however. Tatishceff comes up against various obstacles to his performance as he travels from place to place in search of bookings. His act is repeated in different settings, but he fails to adapt to circumstances, making the ill-founded assumption that he possesses the audience’s respectful and undivided attention. Not the least of his problems is his well-fed but truculent and evil-tempered rabbit. The times are changing, and Tatischeff’s act is squeezed out at the London variety theatre performance by the rampant ego and limelight hogging antics of Billy Boy and his backing band the Britoons. Billy is a shiny-suited rock n roll contortionist who sends the audience into wild paroxysms and immediately empties the hall after his performance ends, leaving the hapless illusionist to face ranks of deserted seats. Youth is taking over, lacking craft and talent but full of ebullient energy. Tatischeff has to travel ever further to find work. There are journeys across seas and firths, the swells and undulations of wave and water a gift for the animator. These scenes recall the ocean voyage in Belleville Rendezvous, although they are more naturalistically depicted here. They also bring to mind the important part the sea plays in the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki and others. These journeys also allow for the painting of romantic sweeps of landscape, which Tati watches with innocent, wide-eyed awe.
Accepting an invitation from a cheerfully drunken, red-nosed Scotsman, Tatischeff winds his circuitous path to a remote Shetland island. Even here, modernity is making its incursions into the inn where he is supposed to perform. The coming of electricity means the installation of a jukebox, which drowns out even the local bagpiper. Tatischeff’s booking is perhaps meant to mark the island’s connection to the grid, to a world of bright lights and plugged-in entertainment, and he therefore effectively celebrates his own redundancy. The Shetland and Highland settings, with their wild landscapes, windswept seas and turreted castles atop craggy outcrops introduce a fairytale element to the story. This is personalised when we meet Alice, an island girl who serves, scrubs and cleans all day and night in the inn, watching all the while from the background in her drab and worn clothes. She is a local Cinderella and is enchanted by Tatischeff’s magic tricks, which provide small explosions of bright illumination into the everyday drudgery of her life of unquestioned servitude. He becomes her Buttons, her oddball fairy godfather. He buys her a pair of red shoes straight out of Hans Christian Anderson (or Powell and Pressburger). Feeling an attachment to him, and craving more of his magic, she stows away. At the vital moment, he fails to disabuse her of her illusions, reluctantly conjuring a ticket out of nowhere to save her from being accused of fare-dodging on the ferry.
A couple of kooksThis couple of kooks end up, on her suggestion, in Edinburgh, where the bulk of the film unfolds, and where Chomet himself is based. Tati’s script originally took them to Prague, but Edinburgh is a perfect replacement. It is painted in rain blurred watercolours, impressionistic backdrops upon which finely observed detail is overlaid. The trams and buses, signs and adverts, the blades of grass waving in the wind on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, the changing skies, and the menu outside the fish and chip shop, with its preponderance of deep fried foods, all bring the city to vivid life. There is a cheerful inclusion of a variety of Tartan clichés. Alice and Tatischeff are blasted from their lunchtime bench by a busking bagpiper who decides to set up pitch right next to them. We also gain a hint of just how little a Scotsman wears beneath his kilt as the wind billows it up on the ferry crossing to the isles, like a rather less appealing version of the Marilyn over the air vent scene from The Seven Year Itch.
Fairytale EdinburghThe emotional resonance of the city, with its muted colours and ubiquitous brown stone, its rain and cloudy skies is a perfect expression of the mood of the story and the characters within it. It is a city in which magic, in the form of the castle and the royal mile, Arthur’s Seat looming romantically beyond and the Georgian grandeur of the new town, contrasts with the harsher realities of the dark canyons and precipitous descents, the dilapidated houses and decaying businesses of the old town. It’s a contrast which has been made since Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and which was more recently depicted with poetic intensity in Richard Jobson’s 16 Year of Alcohol (and to more sensationalist effect in Trainspotting). The steepness of the sloping streets and the grey, wet climate add to a feeling of weariness, of a slow trudge from one defeated encounter to another. But it does occasionally offer moments of magic. Alice brings a touch of brightness with her, still being more attuned to this side of life. She remains safe beneath her umbrella of illusions, perpetuated and protected by her magical guardian, who is loathe to dispel them. She is, after all, currently his best and almost sole audience. The boarding house where they stay is filled with other circus and music hall artistes who are down on their luck and struggling to find work. The film, essentially a wistful comedy, flirts with despair in its depiction of some of these characters. There is the suicidally depressed clown, who gets kicked into the gutter by a group of thuggish little urchins who might previously have formed his audience. There is also a ventriloquist who dummy is a miniature replica and extension of his self, through which he is able to find a way of expressing himself to the world. This ends up in the window of a pawnbroker’s shop, steadily decreasing in price until it’s marked ‘for free’. The artist who gave it life, and for whom it brought a sense of purpose and self-worth, lies in an alcoholic stupor in a back alley, his begging bowl empty before him. Alice’s presence signals a brief interlude of solace to these lonely souls, bringing salvation through soup and wafting through the house like a clear, innocent breeze, bringing memories of days full of fresh hope to these end of the road lives.
Cinderella yearning for transformationA strong link is made between stage illusionism and the hypnotic glamour of consumerism. Alice is enchanted by shop window displays and by the seemingly effortless elegance of the well-off Edinburgh women. She points out her objects of desire to Tatischeff, whom she believes will conjure them into her life. This consumer magic, embodied in fashions and fancy foods, and writ large on billboards and on the side of buses, exerts a stronger fascination that Tatischeff’s old tricks. He plays to listless audiences in a half empty hall. Alice doesn’t see the hard labour which goes into the maintenance of her illusion of an enchanted world in which what she wishes for she gets. He takes a night job at a garage, the cars there a symbol of an increasingly affluent and individualistic society (this was the era in which Macmillan declared many people had ‘never had it so good’) which spurns the buses and trams which trundle past throughout the film. The hints of a harsher world to come, characterised by aggressive marketing and fierce competition, are embedded in the story and also subliminally seeded by the signs for Thatcher’s on the side of a bus (presumably not the West Country cider) and for Blair and Brown’s pawnbroker’s shop. There’s also the rather more obvious (and not exactly subtle) caricature of the vulgar, moneyed Yank who brings his oversized, ostentatious car in for a wash. Tatischeff also swallows his pride and takes a job as a department shop window demonstrator (a moving showroom dummy), making literal the link between consumerism and illusion as he adjusts his act to produce bras and bags and domestic appliances from behind his back, rather than flowers from his sleeve or rabbits out of his hat. The consumer society’s appropriation of the innocent magic and old tricks of the stage world is furthered as Tatischeff joins the acrobats from his boarding house in an unconventional collaboration which uses trapezes rather than scaffolding to paint a huge billboard in double quick time.
Consumer magicTatishceff’s posture and mannerisms are a skilfully observed recreation of Tati’s in his films. This is made amusingly clear in a scene in which he stumbles into a cinema and is confronted by his mirror self as Mon Oncle flickers up on the screen. The film is altered so that hovers half way between animation and live action. It looks different enough to distinguish itself from the animated frame in which it is set, without breaking the very atmosphere, of a world represented rather than mimicked, which that animation creates. Tatischeff doesn’t recognise himself, of course. He’s too busy trying to manage the minor chaos which he has caused. This isn’t a film which plays that much with self-reflexivity, although there is a briefly glimpsed poster for Belleville Rendezvous in the lobby. The cinema is another medium which offers illusion and spectacle to a mass audience, with its massed extras, special effects illusionism, close-ups and its projection of a world of light, all of which makes the old stage magic seem dark and dusty and further marginalizes Tatischeff. Tati himself found a home there for a while, a route out of his tours of the music halls and circuses, from stage to screen. Cinema offered him an environment in which, when times were good, he could control every element of the reality which he constructed. Even here, however, Tati’s cinematic imagination hearkened back to older, vanished forms, his films being essentially modern versions of silent comedies. Such a stubbornly traditional values would eventually lead to him becoming as redundant in the modern world as Tatischeff, something which he perhaps anticipates in this script. Tatischeff himself is already far too set in his ways to make such a transition to the film world, which is only open to a persistent and luck few anyway.
Tatischeff’s alert, bird-like posture is an embodiment of halting indecision, always leaning forward, forearms held out at right angles with hands hanging helplessly, as if in readiness for a shrug. In the Hulot films, this is a momentary hesitation, a comical beat before a decisive leap into action (which is often triumphant in its own unconventional way). In the Illusionist, this alert readiness increasingly lapses into defeated exhaustion as the possible courses of action in the world and in his mind narrow. It might be inferred that such a change reflected Tati’s own later disillusionment as the opportunities for work dried up and his work became neglected, were it not for the fact that the script was written at the peak of his popularity, when he was riding high on the success of Mon Oncle. The ever-optimistic Hulot mask begins to slip here. When he notices that Alice has found the white shoes that he has bought for her and left for safekeeping in his dressing room, he slumps in his chair with an air of utter despair. Even the pleasure of producing his magical gifts and seeing the look of delight on her face is denied him, as they are taken increasingly for granted. The price paid for the appearance of effortless illusion is evident in these unguarded backstage moments, whether at theatre or boarding house. Elsewhere the act must be maintained.
City of busesUltimately the process of disillusionment works itself out. Just as Cinderella has no more need of magic by the end of Perrault’s tale, so Alice, with the help of her fairy godfather, emerges from her island cocoon to undergo a transformation into a new, confident woman at ease in this bright world of modernity. As she takes her first steps into adulthood and finds romance with a rugged writer, she has no more need of her own Buttons. Tatischeff, drained by the effort, both in terms of time and money, of ushering her towards this moment, loses both of his dependents. He takes his rabbit to the top of Arthur’s Seat, leaving it amongst its wild brethren. This large, lazy and corpulent creature which has always bit the hand that fed it looks lost, standing on its hind legs to watch Tatischeff descend. In releasing his rabbit to enjoy an uncertain freedom he is also abandoning his art, admitting to himself that no-one any longer wants it or him. There is a giddy 360 degree orbit around the rock and the surrounding city which he is preparing to leave, a bravura piece of animation which stands out from the otherwise low key and traditional techniques used in the film. Alice discovers a letter of parting in their room alongside the wilted flowers which she had brought into the room when they first arrived, accompanied by a final gift. This time it’s a direct offering of money, rather than the enticing things which it has served to buy her. It’s a gift which invites her to face the reality of the world. His last message backs it up, telling her ‘there are no magicians’, something which she was beginning to learn for herself anyway. The white shoes which she had been entranced by in the shop window, and which Tatischeff bought for her, were replaced with another identical pair, and her boyfriend was unable to magic the string of pearls which caught her eye from the display case to her neck.
Tatischeff speeds away on the train through the rainy night landscape. An opportunity to perform a trick for a little girl presents itself, as she drops the stub of her pencil which is identical to his new full length one, but he doesn’t pursue it. He has decided that the art of illusion is harmfully deceptive, leading to unreal expectations. His art and craft is not only worthless and outmoded, it is actively dangerous in this changing world. Back in Edinburgh, the lights flicker off on the sign above the music hall theatre, the old world closing down. A small firefly spark spirals off, however, maybe to carry its spirit into the cinema screen, maybe to cast its light into the minds of the audience. The final image before the credits roll is of the photograph which Tatischeff had slotted into the frame of every dressing room mirror in front of which he had confronted himself as he prepared for his act. It is of a small girl, maybe a daughter he has left behind in pursuit of his dream of creating magic. Suddenly all of his impulsive sacrifices he has made on behalf of the naïve and innocent island girl whose path he had by chance crossed make sense.