For all of its moving excellence, The Illusionist may be almost as enrapturing for the turmoil surrounding its creation as it is for its artistry. Two arguments, one originating from writer Jacques Tatischeff (from here on out referred to affectionately as “Tati”) family and the other from director Sylvain Chomest (of 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville fame), suggest that Tati either wrote The Illusionist as a means of reconnecting and reconciling with the illegitimate daughter whose stewardship he relinquished at birth, or that he intended the film as an apology to his daughter Sophie– who passed the script on to Chomet around 1999– for spending so much time away from her working during her childhood. The regrettable reality is that Tati, long deceased, cannot end the controversy himself, and we likely will never know the truth of his story’s meaning.
But I did say “almost as enrapturing”, and despite the mystery of Tati and The Illusionist, the film remains one that stands on its own legs and exists separate from the disputes occurring over its purpose. Precise, swift, and lyrical, The Illusionist is visual poetry recited almost solely through action rather than dialogue, much like Chomet’s Triplets; more than a remorseful letter to one of his daughters, Tati’s story is a love note to bygone, fading disciplines and traditions as the new slowly overwhelms the old and what once was cherished and revered falls into obsolescence.
The story revolves around the illusionist of the title, a highly skilled and veteran magician who struggles to maintain his dignity as well as his livelihood in a culture that no longer appreciates the talents of people like him. The illusionist– by no coincidence, I’m sure, his name happens to be Tatischeff– suffers a number of slights from audiences and employers alike and finds himself slipping slowly into irrelevance as popular rock and roll bands all but usurp his place on the stage and patrons pay him no mind as he performs. Our hearts break for Tatischeff (the character, of course), a man we barely know but whose ordeal feels deeply personal and familiar; at the same time his will and courage to continue performing inspires us and endears him to us.
It’s that very drive that takes him from France to a remote Scottish island where Tatischeff’s skills are met with cheers and applause, but the entertainments of modern society threaten to encroach even upon that isolated land. It’s here that the magician is joined on his travels by a young girl named Alice, who believes his deft hand at chicanery and misdirection to be evidence of actual wizardry, and they travel together to Edinburgh as Tatischeff continues trying to eke out a living. Their journey, including the people they meet and the sights they see along the way, is singularly joyful despite the mournful bent inherent to the film’s plot.
The Illusionist moves and breathes, and every detail in each frame takes on a life all its own through vivid and beautifully drawn cel animation. There’s an internal dichotomy struck between the film’s style and substance, the intentionality of which I can’t speak to; just as Tatischeff represents an older tradition which has been left behind in favor of new ones, so too does the film’s hand-drawn animation. Today, pictures like The Illusionist are rare due to the prevalence of 3D animation– they hail from a time long past. While I wouldn’t say cel animation is dead or totally superfluous these days, it’s no longer the driving force of animated features, much like Tatischeff himself (along with the other traditional performers he and Alice meet– acrobats, a ventriloquist, a clown) isn’t the pinnacle of entertainment in the modern society he inhabits.
But Chomet, through Tati’s script, doesn’t wish for us to grieve over the inevitable passing of either the traditional performance arts of the film or the style of animation chosen to deploy the narrative. Really, The Illusionist is about rekindling, or maybe rediscovering, the joy and magic of both. Even in the film’s saddest moments and in its ugliest scenes of human boorishness, a sense of wonder pervades through the mournful fog of Tatischeff’s slow fade out of a life of performance. Arguably the film’s final message exposes our wonderment and awe as reactions to something fake, but while the magic isn’t real its effects upon us certainly are.
I think of The Illusionist as a pleasant little enigma and something of a relic that we’re all lucky Chomet was able to bring to life; the script dates back to 1956, which frankly makes its production something of a miracle (to me, anyhow). But above all else it’s a poignant and captivating piece of animation underscored by brevity, a story about people who experience loss but manage to find something new in the process nonetheless. For all of the nostalgia and sentimentality which composes part of the narrative’s heartbeat, Chomet’s film never feels cloying or steeped in the saccharine, being an ode to the past rather than a dirge.