By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Sylvain Chomet, France, Sony Pictures Classics
The threat of obsolescence pervades every aspect of The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet’s follow up to The Triplets of Belleville. A defiantly 2-D, hand-drawn cartoon in a 3-D CG world, The Illusionist tells the story of an over-the-hill magician who, at the end of the 1950s, finds himself increasingly irrelevant to audiences, a dying breed of performer who cannot compete with the upheaval the rock-and-roll sixties are about to usher in. Chomet makes the point early, as the title character waits in the wings of a London theater, eager to take the stage while Billy and the Britoons, a swishy young rock group, performs encore upon encore for their adoring fans. The theater empties of all but a few spectators before the protagonist, know only as the Illusionist, begins his act. He’s an antique, a throwback to a vaudevillian era that’s already ended. And next to the limp-wristed, foppish Billy and the dandies who back him, the Illusionist represents an antiquated old-school masculinity that also comes off as a little old-fashioned: he’s not manly, exactly, but he is quietly dignified, proud, fatherly, and, in a way, chivalrous—perhaps to a fault.
Chomet’s film is based on a 50-year-old screenplay by Jacques Tati, and there is a simpatico quality to the pairing. Though Tati demonstrated true mastery of sound design, his hilarious send-ups of ultra-modern French society in movies like Playtime and Mon oncle (Chomet’s key touchtone) have a retro-sensibility; his dialogue-free films are Chaplin- or Keaton-esque oddities that have one foot in the silent era, despite—and also because of—their aural richness. Chomet, like Tati, apes a different period. Also eschewing dialogue, he employs a (sadly) outmoded style of animation that harkens back to the golden age of Disney (he cites 101 Dalmations as an inspiration for The Illusionist)—indeed, hand-drawn animation is so rarely practiced today that Chomet and his producers had to scour Europe in search of animators who could execute the cartooning. In The Illusionist, Tati’s and Chomet’s styles blend seamlessly. The result is exceptional and strangely retrograde. Aesthetically and structurally, The Illusionist is wonderfully anachronistic, a near masterpiece of handcrafted animation and visual storytelling. Yet this strange and often heartbreaking film also feels outmoded—in mounting a blistering critique of consumer culture it leans a little too heavily on easy, tired gender roles.
After his ill-fated stint in London, the Illusionist (the character’s design is inspired by Tati himself, though not on his most famous character, Monsieur Hulot), retreats to an island off the coast of Scotland where the residents boisterously celebrate the arrival of wired electricity and, with it, the installation of an incandescent light bulb in a local pub. It’s as though he’s been pushed to the very edge of the modern world. Here, he meets Anna, a young foreign maid who is immediately transfixed by the magician. The Illusionist notices her shoddy shoes and purchases a replacement pair. Rather than making them a gift, he pretends they’re the result of magic. Anna, convinced of the Illusionist’s powers, surreptitiously follows him when he leaves the island. They encounter each other again on the ferry back to Scotland. Lacking a ticket, she expects him to conjure one for her. He obliges. In a sleight of hand, he swipes a ticket for the girl from the ferry’s ticket-taker and presents it as though it he’s made something from nothing.
And so, the Illusionist and Anna establish a pseudo father-daughter relationship that will eventually fuel a vicious circle of bottomless want and noble self-sacrifice. She, oblivious to the fact that the gifts the Illusionist gives her cost money, longs for a jacket, a dress, more shoes—staring at them in shop windows with a fetishistic desperation, and he, eager to please her, preserves the pretense that the stuff she so covets has been delivered to her through magic. They settle in Edinburgh, where they live amongst other vaudevillian performers like himself—a suicidal clown, a washed-up ventriloquist—for whom work is increasingly difficult to find. She takes the bedroom, and he sleeps on the living room couch. She cooks; he takes a night job at a local garage, working himself tirelessly to provide for her.
Their time together in Edinburgh is the movie’s dramatic center, and the city is beautifully realized in painstaking detail by Chomet and his animators. Like The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist is a visual wonder. Even in moments where the film incorporates 3-D imagery (the car the magician drives through the countryside is the most obvious 3-D element of Chomet’s mise-en-scène), it feels brilliantly out-of-step with contemporary trends in animation, a master class in cartooning for a generation that has left the art behind. But The Illusionist lacks the narrative inventiveness of the darkly comedic Triplets, a madcap adventure film about an elderly woman and her dog who set off to rescue her kidnapped cyclist grandson from the French mafia. Almost excessively spare, The Illusionist falls into a rut when its characters do: Alice wants and wants and wants; the Illusionist tries, with diminishing to success, to provide. So naïve, foreign-born Anna becomes an insatiable pit of feminine consumerist desire, and, to put perhaps too fine a point on it, the Illusionist is reduced to being her hapless, helpless, and rather inept sugar daddy (in a strictly platonic sense).
Unfortunately, the Illusionist is only good at magic, and the demand for performers like him has dried up. He gets fired from his garage job and drifts, until an advertiser discovers a way to put the Illusionist to work in service of the very consumerism Anna represents and the film seems to disdain: He hires the magician to perform tricks in a department store window, making merchandise like bras, perfumes, and purses appear and disappear while he wears a pink tuxedo. Chomet plays the scene as a supreme humiliation—the film’s hero, dressed in pink, put on display, hawking women’s wear. The character’s embarrassment betrays the movie’s apparent hostility towards a certain kind of feminine retail culture (would it be so degrading, we might ask, if the Illusionist were dressed in black or advertising soccer balls?). By proxy, Anna, in her obliviousness, becomes the de facto villain—selfish without having any self-awareness, she fails to understand the reality of the situation in which she finds herself. And [SPOILER ALERT] when she finds another man to give her things, she simply moves on. The Illusionist is a technically and aesthetically admirable movie, but its female protagonist comes off as a nightmarishly ungrateful caricature of femininity.
Despite this subtext, The Illusionist nevertheless accumulates thematic heft. Like this year’s most high-profile animation, Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 3, Chomet’s film can be seen as a meditation on desuetude. Towards the end, we glimpse the ventriloquist drunk in an alley and his dummy in the window of a consignment shop, marked down to next to nothing. These images reiterate the point made at the movie’s opening, when the Illusionist performs to a near-empty house after Billy and the Britoons leave the stage, but it also ups the ante. The Illusionist and his compatriots at the hotel—like Toy Story’s Woody, Buzz, and Mr. Potato Head—have been discarded. They’ve passed their sell-by date; they’re no longer useful and no longer valuable. Unlike the Pixar film, which takes its characters to the brink only to offer them redemption at the eleventh hour, The Illusionist provides no such relief.