THE ILLUSIONIST B+
France Great Britain (90 mi) 2010 d: Sylvain Chomet
Rather than pay homage to Jacques Tati like Sylvain Chomet’s last film, this one is adapted from an actual Tati screenplay that features an animated version of the legendary character Monsieur Hulot himself, which creates something of a controversy as it perhaps mis-identifies which missing daughter he was attempting to recognize, as the story closely resembles Tati’s relationship with his own daughter that he neglected (Sophie Tatischeff), no doubt due to his obsession with his career, but also points to his firstborn, an illegitimate daughter (Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel) born 4 years earlier outside his marriage, a girl he all but abandoned, as she was raised in an orphanage. In 1955 when Tati wrote the script, Helga would be age 13, and Sophie, 9, though he continued to tinker with the script for another four years. The script was actually handed to the director by Sophie in 2000, two years before she died, and the film is dedicated to her, which the family of Helga feels is a major oversight. (See: The secret of Jacques Tati - Roger Ebert's Journal and also from The Guardian: Jacques Tati's lost film reveals family's pain and The Telegraph: Jacques Tati's ode to his illegitimate daughter - Telegraph) Set in the late 1950’s, he’s known as the great magician Tatischeff, carrying around in his pocket a circus poster showing him doing his act which he diplays at various theaters around town where he performs to an ever dwindling audience that is becoming non-existent. His music hall act is charmingly adorable, where he pulls a rabbit that bites out of a hat, an animal that prefers to poke its head out prematurely, and performs all sorts of miracles, but few are interested anymore, replaced by a hilarious sequence of British rock ‘n’ rollers who refuse to leave the stage, performing an endless series of narcissistic encores until the house empties afterwords with the exception of an elderly woman and her bespectacled, ice-cream eating young son who keeps checking his watch.
What’s marvelous about this film is how it’s perceived through multiple layers, one of which includes extended Miyazaki-like travel sequences, always accompanied by a sublime musical score which was written by the director himself, moving from the spectacular Paris venues to obscure Scottish pubs during the rainy season, eventually settling for awhile in Edinburgh, as Tatischeff spends his life on the road searching for new venues that will hire him, many with the help of his fellow performers who keep offering him their business cards. Another layer is the presence of a stowaway, a young girl who attaches herself to the great magician like a father figure. Though they stay together at a run down hotel, this girl has a life of her own, following her curiosity, spending her days roaming through the city. One of the more wonderful sequences is when she makes soup, which Tatischeff belatedly discovers is rabbit soup, where he looks around frantically for his missing rabbit. But in this scene she generously feeds other vaudevillians staying in the hotel as well, some close to starvation, as it is filled with performers who are at poverty’s edge and are later seen facing even more dire circumstances.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is the autobiographical aspect, as Tati himself considered the material too personal, thinking himself a failure both as a performer and as a father, yet that’s precisely what makes such an intimate work so endearing, where at one point Tatischeff cleverly sneaks into a theater that is playing MON ONCLE (1958) where, as an animated figure, he’s stupefied at seeing himself in real life. The magician’s act is always performed with the utmost professionalism and grace, even when he’s forced to become a department store live window mannequin, selling women’s perfume and brassieres, making them appear and disappear. In the same way, Tatischeff refuses to disappoint the young girl, who is convinced that as a magician he can make anything appear out of thin air, where her fascination is based on her gullibility and naiveté. But the harsh reality is that time is passing by these charming vaudeville acts and money is hard to come by, especially when his act closes as quickly as it begins, so he spends more time away from her in search of work. There’s an underlying pathos in every scene, all near wordless, as the dark tone and bleak existence in the world is never sugar coated. In fact, much of this resembles early Chaplin when his Little Tramp is desperately searching for work or for a bite to eat. By the end of the film Tatischeff has sadly become obsolete, perhaps even to the girl who is discovering her own life and her own independence.