Paying painterly, loving homage to a cinema legend, The Illusionist envelops its audience in Sylvain Chomet’s artful animation and quaintly realized world—though, in contrast to his international hit The Triplets of Belleville, the ultimate destination is closer to melancholy than bittersweet charm. It witnesses the professional decline of Tatischeff, a veteran magician in 1959 Paris who finds himself pulling wine glasses out of his mouth before a music-hall audience of two, or consigned to the tail end of a bill dominated by a proto-Beatles (and notably swishy) guitar-pop combo. Dragooned into a one-night pub gig on a Scottish isle by the world’s happiest kilted drunkard, the illusionist convinces innocent teenage islander Alice that he perpetuates genuine magic, and she follows him to Edinburgh, where they commence a father-daughter relationship in a vaudevillians’ boarding house, until Tatischeff’s prestidigitated gifts to the girl, offered with a nearly whispered “voila,” can no longer compete with her infatuation with a hunky young swain.
The illusionist’s familiar lumpy visage, awkward and hesitantly graceful gait, and nearly speechless persona are omnipresent evidence that Chomet’s tender but bravely downbeat film is based on an unproduced screenplay by the great Jacques Tati (born Tatischeff), whose image and sensibility have been utilized with respectful and touching results. Employed as the unmistakable model for the title character, the late auteur is reincarnated not as his reliably stoic alter ego Monsieur Hulot (though the broadest comedic moments inevitably recall him), but a more vulnerable, fragile character; he seems to “stretch” as a performer nearly 30 years after his death. In the twilight of his career, with no partner but an ornery rabbit prone to biting, Tatischeff is of a piece with his livelihood’s evanescent circuit and fading peers. Other denizens in the performers’ hotel include a stringy-limbed, suicidal clown and an alcoholic ventriloquist whose lookalike dummy is the one who topples over when he hits the bottle. (Countering the moroseness, a trio of bouncy gymnasts preserves their vitality by moonlighting as commercial painters who daub at billboards from a trapeze.)
Chomet and his animators, rendering these droll and often forlorn types through caricature and a streak of the grotesque, score a particular triumph with the light that’s refracted, glowing, and suffused through their tableaus, whether Tatischeff and Alice’s green and gold hotel room or the nightscape of the Edinburgh skyline and thoroughfares. The film’s hand-drawn, 2D animation style adds nostalgic, emotional chords between the gently funny bits that color the illusionist’s offstage struggles. Taking night jobs to afford more expensive gifts for his surrogate daughter, Tatischeff sits in a department store window, conjuring ladies’ underthings, and in the most sustained slapstick sequence battles a snaky air hose, a grease stain on a shiny white car, and propulsive seat controls in a stint as a garage attendant. In a bit recalling a morbid dead-dog gag in Trafic, he panics that Alice has served him a stew made with his stage rabbit; later he even stumbles into a movie theater showing Mon Oncle and is agog at seeing his doppelganger on the screen. Frequently passing through doors backward with élan, Tatischeff manages to drunkenly negotiate the boarding-house staircase (and the obstacle of a maintenance man) in one tour de force for the animators; Hulot was never inebriated, so they had no template.
When the inevitable parting of man and girl is intercut with the finality of the local music-hall marquee’s dimming, Chomet achieves a misty-eyed unity in eulogizing an extinct era in entertainment and bringing the fabled Tati’s most personal and somber story to its piercing conclusion. His revival of a beloved filmmaker’s long-dormant project has led to sniping in some quarters about changes made to the original treatment, such as shifting the bulk of the action from Prague to Edinburgh. It seems ludicrously shortsighted to attack Chomet for making the project breathe in a way that would fully engage him; though prepared by Tati, it’s ultimately his film, just as A.I. Artificial Intelligence became primarily Spielberg’s and not Kubrick’s work. Tati’s abandonment of the screenplay, inspired by regret and/or guilt over a daughter he never publicly acknowledged, relieves Chomet of any obligation to be painstakingly “faithful” to his predecessor’s unknowable, posthumous wishes. Despite a final sobering caution to Alice that “there is no magic,” the legerdemain delivered by The Illusionist and its poignant addendum to Tati’s artistic legacy is enchantment enough.