DVD of the Week – Review of The Illusionist (2010)

by NIR SHALEV

The Illusionist is an often funny, extremely poignant, and slightly dramatic, melancholy film that contains two stories that coexist under one theme: the times that are changing. The first story is of an aging French illusionist, Tatischeff who is out of work and travels to a small town in Scotland to perform his magic in small locales. Once there, he is welcomed by all of the locals, and also a very drunk one in particular. A young teenage girl, Alice, takes his fancy. When Tatischeff leaves the town to travel to Edinburgh, Alice runs away with him and a partnership develops. It turns into a father/daughter relationship quickly and they get along very well.

Once in Edinburgh, Tatischeff finds work harder to come by, seeing that his style of work is out of place (in a decade resembling the 1950s or the 1960s, it’s never specific) and he’s constantly being replaced by rock bands, in hints of the British invasion. Alice, however, is quickly growing into a young lady. Whenever Tatischeff buys her a pair of shoes, she wants a high heeled pair; when he buys her a nice coat, she wants a white fur coat. His storyline of an aging illusionist in a world that no longer demands his kind coincides with that of a young up and coming woman. There is melancholy all the way through, but the film never forgets to make us laugh too.

This film is based on a screenplay that was written over fifty years ago by master filmmaker Jacques Tati, who’s famously up there with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His subtle pantomime style and ways of making fun of contemporary culture and the unreliable nature of ever developing technology is present here, too, but takes a more dramatic turn than his usual classic comedies. We see a depressed clown whose suicide is interrupted by Alice bringing him a bowl of soup, which cheers him up eternally, and a ventriloquist who must eventually hock his dummy for booze. We also see Tatischeff’s career degrade to the point where he must advertise lingerie in a store window using his knowledge of magic tricks. It’s difficult at certain parts but exists as a film that wants to make a point.

This animated film utilizes a 2D animation style, scoring many points for originality due to not conforming to the generic 3D animation style of current standards, and was nominated last year for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar; and if you ask me it should have won the award in spades. It’s also an extremely beautiful looking and lively film. Its director is Sylvain Chomet, whose previous work was the Oscar nominated, and also 2D animated The Triplets of Belleville (2003); that film was a great social commentary, and its art style and animation was greatly exaggerated. The Illusionist utilizes a slightly exaggerated animation style, heavily toned down from Belleville to conform to Tati’s style of cinema, but it’s still slightly there. The character of Tatischeff is remarkably similar to the live action version Tati himself. It’s almost entirely a silent film, just like Chomet’s Belleville and all of Tati’s great comedies. Dialogue isn’t necessary when the language of movement is enough to convey a story that’s filled with emotions; and when it comes to animation, what method is more useful than, generally speaking, movement?

One can tell that this was a passion project for Chomet, who wrote the screenplay that was based on Tati’s own, and also a labor of love. And what one may feel at the end of the film is a rather universal feeling of sadness. I’d heard that some viewers out there hate its third act for being cruel and depressing. To them all I have to say is this: its third act follows the second and first acts according and if one feels cheated by the end, then clearly they weren’t paying attention.

The DVD is barebones but the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack has a commentary track by director Sylvain Chomet and a Making Of featurette.

Other new releases this week: Blue Valentine, No Strings Attached

5 responses to “DVD of the Week – Review of The Illusionist (2010)

  1. The Scotland of 1960 is beautifully realized: the changing architecture, the clash of regional and national popular musics, the decline of the small shop and the display case, and the varied meanings of privacy in a world suddenly going public are just a few of the visual settings that make the film such a pleasure.

  2. It is a melancholy film. The finale/final defeat is a natural and inevitable progression from the early scenes of outlived-his-day failure (playing to empty houses, being upstaged by a jukebox, etc.). It could only work as a silent, at least in the father-daughter storyline. Dialogue, even with the characters’ language barrier, would puncture the delicate illusion of the relationship.

  3. I enjoyed this movie deeply, I watched it twice to further understand the hard to reach but worthwhile storyline and teared up both times. Tatischeff is a truly amazing character and my heart was eased to know there are still people out there who make hand drawn animation films that pay close attention to detail and motion in a world of carelessly animated cartoons.
    The movie (to me) was overly bittersweet. The view of a Paris/Edinburgh/London amalgam made the movie, and it wouldn’t have worked if the movie hadn’t been silent.
    I enjoyed the movie and it inspired me, for I myself am a writer and one day I will create such works of art as The Illusionist.

    • If you loved The Illusionist then you should watch Jacques Tati’s first few films “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”, “Mon Oncle”, and his opus “Playtime”.

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