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February 27, 2011

Sylvain Chomet’s L’Illusioniste is a charming little gem that captures the bittersweet, nostalgic spirit that must have informed Jacques Tati’s original script, if not all of his intentions in writing it. Be that as it may, what we see is clearly more Chomet’s film than Tati’s, and we are left wondering how Tati would have presented his story.

Tatischeff is a French stage magician in a decidedly vaudevillian tradition. He performs on playbills with various other acts, from ventriloquists to acrobats to clowns. His own act is sparse and traditional — producing rabbits from hats and swapping empty wine glasses for full ones — and while it may have played when he was a younger man, by around 1970 times have clearly moved on. His entire act fits in a trunk and a rabbit cage which he can wheel behind him as he travels from one city to another for a few night’s work in front of decidedly disinterested audiences.

Not everyone is quite so jaded. A swing through a northern Scotland town brings some cheers, but even so the audience is more excited by the brand-new electric jukebox. But one young girl, Alice, is captivated. While cleaning his room at the inn, he shows her a few kindnesses. A coin pops out of an ear; a new pair of shoes to replace her old, tattered ones materialize out of thin air. As far as she knows, Tatischeff’s talents really are magical, and he doesn’t speak enough English to set her straight, even if he wanted to break her heart like that.

When Tatischeff leaves town, Alice tags along adoringly. Despite his ambivalence and the fact that his own situation is increasingly untenable, he does his best to care for her and to keep up the illusions she so fervently believes in. But they are, of course, illusions; coins and shoes and tickets and coats and dresses do not simply appear in the illusionist’s hands, no matter how convincing he makes it seem. The curtain must eventually come down on every show.

Chomet adapts Tati’s semi-autobiographical story into his own inimitable style. Whatever dialogue may have been written to lay out Tati’s nostalgic meditations are wiped away in favor of Chomet’s pantomime of caricatures. I haven’t listed any voice actors, since there really aren’t any voices to speak of beyond a phrase here or a grunt there, and those slip in as other lines in the background score, which Chomet also composed himself, redolent of Erik Satie and Yann Tiersen. It’s always amazing how clearly Chomet manages to communicate under these circumstances, but it definitely feels like Chomet is speaking rather than Tati.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; just different. The imagery is beautiful and evocative, from the architectural detail to the landscapes of northern Britain, and in the faces and bodies of so many characters, not to mention all the busy bodies filling out backgrounds for no real reason other than to bring them alive. Tatischeff, naturally, very much resembles Tati in both appearance and action. Alice’s face is bright and expressive. Both of them seem to come alive on the screen.

Whether Chomet has been true to Tati’s intentions or not, he tells a captivating story. And no matter what Tatischeff — or Tati, for that matter — believes, he does manage to effect at least one truly magical transformation.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel test: I’m not sure how meaningful the test is here, but I’d have to say it fails.

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