11 Jan

Title: L’Illusionniste
Sylvain Chomet
Sylvain Chomet, adapting from the original screenplay by Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet
Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
MPAA Rating:
PG, thematic elements and smoking
80 min
Major Awards:
1 NBR Award
IMDb Rating:
Rotten Tomatoes:

I was quite intrigued to see L’Illusionniste, based on an unproduced script by French legend Jacques Tati and that would feature an animated character inspired by Mr. Tati himself. And the result was an animated film I sincerely adored, brought to us by Sylvain Chomet, the man who brought us the equally sensational Les Triplettes de Belleville back in 2003. And that’s because this really is a film aimed at adults. Yes, Pixar films are universal and will please adults tremendously, but at their core you can still say that they are aimed at a younger demographic. This one, however, is definitely aimed mostly at adults, and it’s cool to have an adult animated film.

And moreover, I actually thought the film really did service to Jacques Tati’s artistic style, and that the marriage it made with those of Mr. Chomet’s was a thing of beauty to watch unravel. Yes, it all feels very melancholic, but that’s where this film finds its fantastic spell, and, if anything, the true illusionist here is Mr. Chomet who, for eighty glorious minutes, convinces us that Mr. Tati is still alive and doing his usual wonders, albeit in hand-drawn form. This is, plain and simple, a beautiful film, one that’s done in a most elegant way and that with its 2D animation and adult-oriented thematic represents a form of animation we really aren’t getting enough of.

I know of a friend who has seen this film and thought it was “overly nostalgic”, and I think that’s way off. I mean, sure, it’s nostalgic, it does after all work as an homage to the great Mr. Tati who passed away nearly three decades ago and it feels like an ode to a world that no longer exists. But it’s not overly nostalgic, the melancholy and sense of loss never once feels gratuitous, if anything it’s what makes this so charming, because instead you really feel like you’re transported to those times in which the great legend lived, all shown in beautiful animation that sets a brilliant tone for the whole ride.

Before Mr. Tati turned to films he worked as a mime, and that’s the sort of world we’re introduced to here. The late 1950’s in which a French magician is struggling to maintain himself as interesting to an audience who is getting tired of his old tricks. The magician, working at a pub in Scotland where no one seems to be loving his act, suddenly spots a young girl who looks at him in awe, and its their evolving relationship we’ll get to watch for the rest of this film.

And I say “watch” because this really is about that great artistic sensibility Mr. Tati had in which he could communicate so greatly using pretty much not a single word. And that’s what we get here, too. As the magician and the teenage girl, Alice, don’t speak the same language and are left to communicate and befriend each other using gestures and only few words. This feels like those old films in which you realize just how much senseless talk there is in movies nowadays.

And the relationship that thus develops between these two is really lovely to watch. Full of really neat moments and colorful views, that have Mr. Chomet once again at the top of his game, though this one is a far more restrained burst of energy than the one he showed in the louder Les Triplettes de Belleville. The visuals of this film are designed to have that nostalgic feel to them, and the places we go into with our two characters are all lovely animated and designed, it really is all gorgeous to look at.

The CGI-animated films we are bombarded with on a monthly basis now can also be pretty darn amazing, Toy Story 3 got an A+ from me and Despicable Me got an A-, but it’s this sort of animation that really feels super neat, the one we grew up with. And the talent Mr. Chomet has to bring these hand-drawn illustrations to live is sensational, his artistic sensibilities are perfect to create all these really cool details and finely-tuned sequences, there’s no way you won’t be able to love this one.

Now, if you go to the Wikipedia page for L’Illusionniste you’ll see a section dubbed “Motives for the script”, which details a bit the controversy behind why Mr. Tati wrote the original script. I knew quite a bit about this as a regular reader of Roger Ebert’s blog since in late May Mr. Ebert published a letter by one of Mr. Tati’s grandson’s, in which he expressed his views. The story is reportedly that Mr. Tati wrote L’Illusionniste to try and reconcile with one his daughters whom he had abandoned as a child, and the story of the magician and Alice was his way of dealing with this guilt. There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding this, and you can feel the outrage and pain in the aforementioned grandson’s letter posted by Mr. Ebert, who felt the film was a “grotesque”  homage to his grandfather. And while I can certainly understand all of this, it didn’t take away a single bit from my experience with L’Illusionniste, which I will always consider as a thing of magic.

Grade: A-


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