In 2003, French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet charmed the world with his quirky, animated comedy about aged vaudeville performers and competitive bicycling, The Triplets of Belleville. His new work is gorgeous to look at, winningly offbeat and charming, but set in a decidedly minor key.
The bittersweet story is set in 1959, a pivotal year for the titular illusionist, whose music-hall act is being usurped by movies, television and rock 'n' roll. Leaving Paris with his cranky rabbit, the magician lands a gig in the Scottish Highlands. There, he gains a companion, a teen-age girl who may or may not believe his tricks are real, but who likely knows nothing magical will ever happen where she is. The two wind up in Edinburgh, at a hotel with other show folk navigating the twilight of their careers.
The magician plies his trade to empty rooms; the girl discovers a world of possibilities. There's not much plot and virtually no dialogue. Instead, Chomet offers loosely connected vignettes: The rabbit goes missing the same night soup magically appears at the hotel; the magician gets a night job at a garage; the girl buys new shoes. Yet when the film concludes, much has changed.
Chomet adapted the screenplay from an unpublished work by French actor and filmmaker Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle). The illusionist has the same raincoat and umbrella as Tati's character, and aspects of the film's style are reminiscent of Tati's works. (Chomet also incorporates an unmistakable nod to Tati, a jarring moment that reminds us there's a number of illusionists at work.)
Chomet has found an appropriately broody setting for his story in Edinburgh, an old Scottish city where narrow streets wrap around cliffs and castles. Clouds and rain dominate, but occasionally the sun appears, revealing spots of brilliant color against the grays and blacks of this battered, but resilient city. (Chomet now lives in Edinburgh, and this film seems as much a nostalgic Valentine for his new home as it is an elegy to these lost arts.)
The illustrations are faithfully rendered and dense, yet despite the exquisite detail and all-too-true narrative, The Illusionist is not exactly neo-realist. Chomet has his winks -- a fish-and-chip menu lists absurd items; the illusionist's oversized feet -- and the other residents at the performers' hotel are cartoonish. On the other hand, there's little funny about the film's focus: a lonely, broke middle-aged man who is ceding his place in a rapidly changing world.
Combining the real with the fanciful is a tricky feat, and, for me, there were times when this mix detracted from either presentation. The film requires a bit of indulgence, both in this respect, and in forgiving its slim story stretched to nearly two hours. But what illusion -- a rabbit from a hat or a feature film -- doesn't require some suspension of expectations for the trick to work?
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Starts Fri., Feb. 4