The Illusionist

THE ILLUSIONIST. Animated film. Starring: Edith Rankin, and Jean-Claude Donda. Directed by Sylvain Chomet. Rated M (Mild themes). 80 min.

This is a marvellous, British-French, animated movie, based on a script written in 1956 by the famed director and actor, Jacques Tati. It was Tati, who gave us the comedy cinema classics of “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), “Mon Oncle (1958)”, and “Playtime (1967)”. The animation in the movie focuses on Tati himself, playing the role of Tatischeff, an Illusionist. Tatischeff meets a young girl, Alice, who thinks he is a real magician.

Tatischeff has not done well in Paris, and he packs his bag and moves to London, hoping he will do better. There he joins a local rock-band, and plies his trade in bars, cheap cafes, and small gatherings, far removed from the audiences he really desires. He leaves London to go to a remote community where he performs before a young, servant girl, Alice (Edith Rankin), who thinks he has wondrous powers. He moves on, and the girl follows him. She looks after him and keeps his house, and he gives her all that he has. Eventually, he has nothing else to give, and Tatischeff leaves Alice with  a letter that tells her that “magicians do not exist.” He leaves her as quickly as Alice found him, but Tatischeff knows there is a handsome young admirer (Jean-Claude Dona), who will look after her.

In the final scenes of the film, the departing Tatischeff looks at a photograph he has on the train. It seems to be different from the photo of the girl (which we are shown briefly in the credits) to whom he has dedicated the film. The movie suddenly accrues relevance to the fractured relationship Tati had with his daughter, Helga-Marie, whom he left as a child. He left her behind, just as he did Alice, who followed him, and who thought he was more than he was. He dedicated the movie to his other daughter, Sophie.

This is a delightfully melancholic film that conveys human pain. The story behind the fantasy conveys the pathos that characterised the sadness of Tati’s live interpretation of many of the characters he has played in his well-known comedies. His films are nearly all about people, who give as well as take, as Alice did, and whose needs are often not accepted for what they are.

This is an immensely touching story of an older man, who platonically cares deeply for a young girl. The movie is virtually without dialogue. The bitter-sweet tone that runs through Tati’s comedies permeates the movie, and the film creates wonderful comedy routines, such as washing a car without water, playing magician in a shop window, and selling an artist’s puppet that was advertised for a price but is now on sale  for “free”. All of them are classic Tati, and mirror exactly the style of his films.

This gentle, affectionate and poignant film, however, needs to be placed in the context of live happenings that affected Tati and his family. Life for him continues to be not what it seems. Helga-Marie’s name is not listed anywhere among those to whom Tati dedicated this film, and she is probably the daughter whose photo was with him on the train.

This is an outstanding movie. It is filled with beautiful images, which are a glowing tribute to Antoine Antin and his technical team of cartoonists. The film establishes set pieces, arranged in wonderful pastel colours, with card-board cut-out clarity. When one visits again the world of the actor, Jacques Tati, it is tempting to conclude that life for him may itself be an illusion. What seems real in this movie, hardly ever is.

This is a film that is unique. It brilliantly recreates Tati’s life in imaginary form, and is a movie simply not to be missed.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Madman Entertainment.

Out July 28, 2011.

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