Short Takes: The Illusionist
By Nicolas Rapold
(Sylvain Chomet, France, 2010)
French animator Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to his rambunctious 2003 pastiche The Triplets of Belleville is just as ambitious but in different ways. This scaled-down study in melancholy centers on an aging music-hall magician who settles in Edinburgh and toils to support a spoiled country lass whom he has taken under his wing. There’s plenty of crack-a-smile humor, but the underlying mood recalls the diminuendo stretches in a Jacques Tati film.
In fact, Chomet works from a screenplay written by Tati himself in the late Fifties and reportedly shelved in favor of Playtime. The most peculiar aspect of this exercise is that the illusionist protagonist is a hand-drawn facsimile of the great comedian, circa Mon Oncle. Chomet reproduces Monsieur Hulot’s familiar raincoat-draped figure, diffident feints, and subverbal murmurs, as well as select comedic routines from Tati’s films.
The mimicry is executed within a detailed, affectionately overcast re-creation of mid-century Edinburgh, just as rock ’n’ roll hits (in the form of an ill-advisedly mincing band). Chomet’s animated Tati makes one long for the flesh-and-blood physical comedy of the original; this sort of tribute is more tolerable in small doses, such as the one-off caricatures in Triplets. But a story of wistful drift between an elderly man and his young charge is an impressive move for the acclaimed animator, who returns to the key of nostalgia yet embraces its lows as well as its highs.