The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)


The Illusionist

The Scottish audiences were most pleased when the Illusionist conjured Scotch out of thin air.

(2010) Animated Feature (Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil, Raymond Mearns, James T. Muir, Tom Urie, Paul Bandey. Directed by Sylvain Chomet

 

There comes a time in life when we realize that the world has moved on without us. Very few of us can keep up with progress, particularly when the careers we’ve labored at all our lives have been rendered obsolete, either through technology or simply through changing tastes. It is bittersweet; the sadness that which we have labored at no longer matters, but there is also a freedom in it as well.

Monsieur Jacques Tatischeff (Donda) is a stage musician and a good one. He has played all the finest music halls and vaudeville theaters in Europe. Now, it is the 1950s and the 1960s are right around the corner and the audience for his kind of entertainment is shrinking. Once a headliner, he is reduced to taking whatever bookings he can and has found himself in Edinburgh.

He has caught the attention of Alice (Rankin), the young chambermaid at the hotel he is staying in. She is dewy-eyed and innocent, her eyes wide and open, amazed by the illusions Monsieur Tatischeff conjures. His act has convinced her that there is real magic in the world and that Monsieur Tatischeff has access to it.

For his part, Monsieur Tatischeff is touched at the attention he is receiving – one last true fan. He looks upon Alice as the daughter he never had and showers her were gifts – new shoes, new dresses. He can’t afford them on the meager pay of his bookings, so he works odd jobs when he’s not onstage so that he can buy these things for Alice, who thinks he has conjured these fine things out of air. He wants her to continue thinking that.

But this is one illusion even a master Illusionist like Monsieur Tatischeff can maintain indefinitely and soon he is faced with the wrenching choice of revealing the truth to Alice or continuing the lie. Reality is fast catching up to him as it does with us all.

Chomet was the auteur behind the much-acclaimed The Triplets of Belleville. The script he’s working off of here was written by the great French comedian and actor Jacques Tati, who wrote this back in 1959 but for some reason never got around to filming it as a live-action film although there is evidence that he intended to. This is said to be a highly personal work for him; the Alice character may represent a daughter that he abandoned, although Chomet has said that Alice was really Sophie, the younger daughter who first gave Chomet the script to produce as an animated feature.

The movie is hand-drawn rather than computer generated. This process is tedious and labor-intensive and rarely used since Pixar took over the animation market. It also renders the movie more beautifully, resembling paintings more than anything else. This is animated art folks and is as beautiful looking (even in its tedious Edinburgh scenes) as you’re likely to see.

There is almost no dialogue – Chomet prefers to make his work more universal, so most of the sounds you hear are wordless, like acrobats exclaiming “Hep! Hep! Hep!” as they bounce around the screen. There are sighs and cries, but few words. In many ways this is like a silent movie, relying on the characters to tell the story without using extraneous words.

Tati was inspired by Charlie Chaplin (and there are those who consider him France’s Chaplin) and in a sense, this is a movie that Chaplin would likely have approved of. There is some pathos and the comedy is quirky and well choreographed. There is a definite melancholic air however that might be off-putting for some; after all, this is supposed to be at its heart about a father-daughter relationship. However, it is also about the end of an era, about a man having to accept that what he had done for a living all his life was no longer meaningful. There is nothing funny about be rendered obsolete, but there can be a catharsis in it and Chomet finds it.

This is a beautiful movie, if you can find beauty in sadness. There is some joy here as well, but I walked away from it feeling like you do after you’ve had a good cry although I shed no tears while I watched. It is certainly different than the offerings of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, the two leaders in modern animation. It didn’t connect with the audience sadly, although it did get an Oscar nomination. It’s one of those movies that a lot of people kind of turned their noses up at, but it is also one of those films that if you give it half a chance you are likely to fall under it’s spell.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully hand drawn with a marvelously bittersweet story on aging and growing irrelevant.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Almost no dialogue and a melancholic feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here might be a bit difficult for smaller children to work through. There are also numerous depictions of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Illusionist’s stage name, Jacques Tatischeff, is the real name of Jacques Tati who wrote the script.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting feature that shows a scene being animated from storyboard to finished product.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.6M on a $17M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Attack the Block

Blind Date (2007)


Blind Date

An uneasy romance.

(Variance Films) Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thijs Romer, Gerdy De Decker, Georgina Verbaan, Robin Holzhauer, Sarah Hyland, Peer Mascini. Directed by Stanley Tucci

A relationship is a fragile thing. It requires nurturing and growth in order to survive. Sometimes, events happen which put this fragile existence in jeopardy. In those instances, a couple has to be willing to go to extreme lengths to make things work.

Don (Tucci) owns a rundown bar (although it’s never specifically said, we assume it’s in Amsterdam) and periodically takes to the small stage to perform a desultory Vaudeville-like magic act, usually to be met with disinterest. People go to this bar to drink and maybe hook up; entertainment is not really on the minds of any of the barflies who frequent it.

He is married to Janna (Clarkson), someone he has spent much of his adult life with. The marriage is a lifeless one, it seems; they are trying to spice it up with a series of blind dates arranged through personal ads. In each date the two take on different personas, trying to find two that mesh well. However, reality intrudes on each date as their problems peek through the façade, causing each date to end badly, inevitably.

It’s a simple premise, and only two gifted actors could make this work. Tucci wrote and directed this movie based on a 1996 movie by the late Dutch director Theo van Gogh, who would be murdered by Muslim extremists in 2004 for making a film critical of Islam. Tucci has chosen to take that movie and strip it down to a bare frame, shooting on two sets over the course of seven days, utilizing many of van Gogh’s regular crew to do it.

The results are mixed. The movie at times has a stagey feel, like you’re watching the filmed version of a stage play. I get the distinct impression that Tucci as a director was deliberately going for that feel, and to be honest, I think that it makes some of the movie ring false. The powerful dialogue and plot might have been better served in a more natural setting, but that’s just me.

What makes this movie worth seeing are the performances of Tucci and Clarkson. Their characters have both been wounded deeply and are struggling to find a way to co-exist and both of them are very well aware that they may be clutching at phantoms that don’t exist. The actors have to portray people playing different roles, only accidentally allowing their true selves to peek through. This is the kind of acting that requires great discipline, much preparation and a whole lot of talent. Fortunately, these are two of the better actors working today, people who elevate every movie they’re in but very rarely get lead roles.

There is some voiceover narration from the couple’s daughter which helps to explain the goings on (and it is much needed) but other than that all the lines (other than background chatter) are spoken by Clarkson and Tucci. Fortunately, Tucci has written compelling dialogue that is not only interesting but gives a good deal of insight not only into the hell these two characters are in but also into the nature of failing relationships in general.

This is a very intimate film in the sense that it delves deeply into the deepest, most private parts of a marriage – and I’m not necessarily referring to the bedroom, although sexuality is touched upon at times. This is about the emotional sanctuary that a married couple provides each other, and what happens when that sanctuary is eroded. It’s very difficult to get it back once it’s gone.

This is not a movie for everybody. It is painful and awkward at times and the emotional places it visits can be very traumatic for those who have been in similar situations. It also requires a certain amount of focus from the viewer to pick up on the nuances, and a willingness to be in a quiet, still place. Still, if you’re willing to commit to the movie, you may find that you get a good deal out of it. What that might be is totally up to you.

WHY RENT THIS: A very powerful look at two people trying to save their marriage in an unorthodox way. Tucci and Clarkson deliver strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a very emotionally complex movie without a good deal of language; less cerebral viewers may get bored.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexual tension and a fair amount of foul language. These, along with the very adult subject matter, should make this off-limits for kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Don was originally offered to Tony Shalhoub but when he had to drop out due to schedule conflicts, Tucci decided to take the role himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Skeptic