Monday, October 25, 2010

The Illusionist


I saw Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. I found it so remarkable that I returned to see it again the following night. The review below is an attempt to convey my feelings about the film without revealing too much of the story, as it has yet to be released in North America. There are many aspects of this film that I will eventually discuss in great detail, but that will have to wait until other people have the chance to see it. The film is scheduled to open in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day and I assume it will get a wider release early next year.

Sylvain Chomet's subject is human eccentricity. That was plain in his earlier work, The Old Lady and the Pigeons and The Triplettes of Belleville, though he hadn't found a way to combine his eccentrics with a workable story. The Illusionist, based on a script by the late French comedian and filmmaker Jacques Tati, is Chomet's best film yet, one that combines his eccentrics with a melancholy tale of age and youth.

Tati's script was written sometime in the latter 1950's, and this film has strong echoes of Chaplin's Limelight. Both films concern performers who have lost their audience and who have encounters with younger women. Limelight pairs Chaplin with a depressed ballerina. While his own career deteriorates, he helps to revive hers. In this film, Tatischeff, a stage magician, becomes the protector of Alice, a teenage maid who attaches herself to him to escape her life of drudgery.

At best, Alice is naive; she takes Tatisheff's magic as real. He works hard to fulfill her wishes. However, this puts financial pressure on Tatischeff, whose act is passé, and eventually he can no longer sustain her illusions.

What separates this film from most contemporary animated features is its acknowledgment of failure and its feeling of melancholy. Tatischeff is only one of several performers who are watching the demand for their talents vanish in the age of television and rock and roll. There is a ventriloquist, a clown, some acrobats and an opera singer, all of whom are remarkably individual in their appearance and movements. Chomet gets to indulge himself with them, but in a broader context that ties their oddness to being out of step with audiences. As this film is made with drawings in an age of cgi, I wonder if Chomet wasn't reflecting on his own situation as his animated performers became more desperate.

Live action is full of autumnal films. Limelight, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and John Huston's The Dead are suffused with sadness and a feeling of helplessness. Until now, animation has refused to acknowledge these things. As animation directors age, they don't mature or else the industry doesn't let them. Chomet is not yet 50, but he has directed this film with the wisdom and insight of someone twenty years older.

Some films become touchstones; they remain part of the conversation years after their release. For some part of the animation community, The Illusionist will be a touchstone. While I have enjoyed Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist is my favorite animated feature of the year and I don't expect that will change in the remaining months.

18 comments:

Daniel said...

I still have to see this, and I'm looking forward it to more now. I've recently been watching the films of Jacques Tati, starting with Mon Oncle, so this is a nice surprise he was involved with this. I'll be killing two birds with one stone! ;)

warren said...

Daniel, you should start with the M. Hulot series, in my honest opinion...they are bright, lively films in comparison to Mon Oncle in terms of sensibility - I find Mon Oncle to be a new step in an aesthetic direction that almost seems to culminate in Chomet's 'L'Illusioniste'.

But that could just be me.

Pete Emslie said...

Actually, Tati is still portraying Hulot in "Mon Oncle", though I don't recall whether he's referred to by name during that film. I like all of the Hulot films, but my favourite one is "Playtime", which I have seen many times over, yet with each viewing I still can find something going on in the background that I hadn't noticed before. Now that "The Illusionist" has gotten a very positive review from Mark, I am even more looking forward to seeing it myself.

Steven Hartley said...

Looks interesting...

Francis Lemelin said...

I love Jacques Tati's films, Chaplin's Limelight, Sylvain Chomet's style and films with a real sense of maturity. This can't go wrong. I've been waiting too long to see it.

Eric Noble said...

Wonderful review. I cannot wait to see this!!! I love Sylvain Chomet's work and I hope he gets to do more films. I am hooked.

nickwatson said...

I agree! I saw it on the Saturday night as well and thought the film was terrific. I really enjoyed the pace of the film, it matched its surroundings perfectly. I hope the Oscars don't overlook it.

Michael Sporn said...

Thanks, Mark, for the review. As you know it's one of the biggest reasons I wanted to get to Ottawa and regret not having been there.

Others have commented that the relationship between the young girl and the older man felt a bit uncomfortable. I'm glad to see you didn't feel that. The world has gotten too jaded.

It'll be a package I look forward to opening on Christmas Day.

roconnor said...

Michael, there is a clear sexual tension with the Magician towards the girl.

That is not post-modern cynicism, but something shown in the film. He doesn't dote on her like a grandfather, he sexualizes her -buying high heeled shoes, peering through a crack in the door as she sleeps, and even the final act of their relationship is determined by a romantic incident.

I think Mr. Mayerson's review generously overlooks the films flaws. It's a terrific piece of work which should be celebrated, but it's no "Old Lady and the Pigeons".

As beautiful as the animation often is, all the characters move in the same manner. This, to me, is indicative of the greater part of the picture -an excellent technical achievement with little introspection (and very unlike Tati in that regard).

Hilary Moses said...

Hi -
For my two bits I am in agreement with roconnor. I saw this on the closing night of the VIFF and as stunning as it is (visually) and heartening in its existence (a 2D feature in a world of 3D) It was disappointing for me as a film. I love Tati and think his work has alot in common with animation. Not just because of the its dependence on the visual and not the spoken, but because of the precision of his timing. But the female character despite, a promising beginning revealed herself to be hollow and materialistic and their relationship turned out to be kind of depressing and predictable. I guess my expectations were too high but it did renew my appreciation the storytelling capabilites of Pixar.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't disagree more. While I liked Triplette's a lot, this new effort is bland, repetetive, and ultimately pointless. The animation is mechanical and uninspired, and the design ill defined. I've seen it 3 times now, and I tend to want to follow the 10 or so people at each screening that walk out halfway through--but I stay, hoping I'll find something to make me care. It doesn't work.

And it is a shame Tati's name is in any way connected to this travesty.

It is a very, VERY weak film.

Anonymous said...

I was very very disappointed with Illusionist. The film is a mess - as a story it's badly told from beginning to end. Interestingly entire sequences were cut at the very last minute after being fully produced. The film had severe narrative defects which were not resolved and it shows in the final version. Anyone notice that amazingly animated rugby match playing on the TV sets in the bg? Bit OTT for just a BG detail don't you think? That was originally an entire sequence where Alice goes with Tatishceff and sees the boyfriend playing rugby, all fully animated and then CUT since it was redundant to the story, as were loads of other scenes - around 30mins of finished animation was lost severly affecting the original intention of the story.
The narrative is choppy and abstract in its direction and at times it makes very little sense. Some character story arcs are inexplicable - the drunk being the worst (brilliantly animated though) as he randomly pops up at the end for no good reason - the fact that it was the same character that invited Tatishceff to perform in his village completely passed me over.
Alice comes across as a greedy gold digger and not some naive innocent, and she ditches this poor man at the first available opportunity after she has bled him dry. Her belief that Tatischeff can do 'real' magic is not explained at all well.
Even artistically, in a film which on the whole is very very beautiful (that last shot of the book and the shadow? WOW!!!!) there are some bizarre off choices in the art direction. In the scene where the manager of Jenners is trying to decide what to display in his front window; the colour design, composition and character designs are so bad you have to wonder if you are suddenly watching a different film. A real mixed boat.
And if Chomet is so against CGI and so FOR hand drawn animation, why oh why was there that completely ghastly badly judged CGI turnaround of Edinburgh at the end?! It looked appalling - stylistically out of tune with the beautiful watercolour look from the rest of the film and narratively pointless.
Being a 2D animator I SO wanted a lot from Illusionist to help reinforce that 2D is not dead and can continue to thrive. I'm glad it's getting good press but I was appalled at a dull boring film of people just walking and walking around! MAJOR disappointment.

Anonymous said...

I was very very disappointed with Illusionist. The film is a mess - as a story it's badly told from beginning to end. Interestingly entire sequences were cut at the very last minute after being fully produced - anyone notice that amazingly animated rugby match playing on the TV sets in the bg? Bit OTT for just a BG detail don't you think? That was originally an entire sequence where Alice goes with Tatishceff and sees the boyfriend playing rugby, all fully animated and then CUT since it was redundant to the story, as were loads of other scenes - around 30mins of finished animation was cut severly affecting the original intention of the story!
The Illusionist everyone is seeing in the cinemas is not how the original story was intended to run - a complete reedit was done to try and iron out the many flaws of the original cut.
The narrative is choppy and abstract in its direction and it makes very little sense. Some characters story arcs are inexplicable - the drunk being the worst (brilliantly animated though) as he randomly pops up - the fact he invited Tatishceff to perform in his village completely passed me over. Alice come across as a greedy gold digger and not some naive innocent, and her belief that Tatischeff is a real magician is not explained at all well.
And if Chomet is so against CGI and so FOR hand drawn animation, why oh why was there that completely ghastly badly judged CGI turnaround of Edinburgh at the end?! It looked appalling - stylistically out of tune with the beautiful watercolour look from the rest of the film and narratively pointless.
Being a 2D animator I wanted a lot from Illusionist to help reinforce that 2D is not dead and can continue to thrive. I'm glad it's getting good press but I was appalled at a dull boring film of people just walking and walking around! MAJOR disappointment.

Mitch K said...

Tati's films are humorous and intriguing, and Chomet's characterization is always very distinct. I'm looking forward to hearing your more specific thoughts on this one.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mark.. I can't wait to see this film!! I tired to contact you via your email address, & I hope you are doing well..
Kind Regards
--Tom Sacchi
tomsacchi@yahoo.com

Michael Sporn said...

I've finally seen this film, and I can only say that it is brilliant. I totally agree with you, Mark.

I can't agree with you Richard. There is not, that I saw, a hint of sexual tension between the old guy and the girl. He cares for her, buys everything she asks for (including the high heels, although he questions doing so) to take care of her lovingly. No Sexually. He opens the door to her bedroom to make sure she has come home, and the second he sees a leg revealed, he immediately shuts the door. Richard, you've read too much into this with your 2010 eyes.

The animation is a beautiful, human caricature not a grotesque cartoon character. The walks are all beautiful, and there are many. All characters, in my eyes, moved with their own individual pace.

There is so much to say about this film; it's hard for me to stop. I want to see it again, now.

Adam Barteluk said...

I thought the Illusionist was a beautiful film and I can't disagree more with the criticisms of some people. I don't think there is a sexual connotation to the old man and the girl's relationship at all but I have heard some people mention a certain level of ambiguity in that regard. Who say's you can't have a close, intimate relationship with someone without sex being involved? I've also read somewhere that the script was written by Tati with his daughter in mind and that it was his way to convey his feelings for her in a way he couldn't face to face. From what I remember reading he wasn't always around when she was growing up. I knew this going in so I'd never thought of the relationship as sexualised until someone else mentioned it. Perhaps it is a criticism of the filmaking/storytelling that some people come to this conclusion and not the source material. I also think, as Mr Sporn points out, that our modern day cynicism is perhaps to blame for thinking this way. To the person that said the girl came across as shallow and materialistic I agree to an extent but I saw this as intentional. I feel it show's a new generation that is more materialistic and consumerist as each generation would increasingly become to this day. For me it echoes the point about changing attitudes to hand drawn animation in a CG world. I think this is a film regardless of it's success, critical or otherwise, will be cherished (particularly by animators) for many years to come. Oh and I love the walks in this film too, particularly the dancers/showgirls in heels.

Will Finn said...

Hi Mark,

I forestalled reading your review till i could see the movie, which i did last night.

I enjoyed it somewhat more than TRIPLETTES, but like "roconnor", my favorite Chomet film is still the wonderfully imaginative, surreal and absurd THE OLD LADY & THE PIGEONS, which is an absolutely perfect film IMO.

I completely concur with your take on THE ILLUSIONIST, but found the distance and slowness a little taxing at times. We are at least 6 to 20 feet (or more) away from the action at all times: i can't recall a single scene closer than that. The pacing felt a bit like listening to an Eric Satie being played for just a wee bit too long...I also found it odd that the film would resurrect Tati only to "kill" him off again. I guess another way of seeing it would be that it's kind of an epilogue and a farewell.

The atmosphere of the movie is remarkably evocative in every single scene. I think this is one of the great achievements of it. Where we were and who we were with was completely genuine and rendered with great maturity and sensitivity. The director's attention to detail is marvelously rich.

The animation of the Tati character could not have been more astute. The constant attention to his posture and balance were perfectly animated. Especially when standing still, the signature characteristic of tipping forward on the balls of his feet and lightly bouncing on the toes--really well done...

Found the theme of an entertainer outliving his medium a poignant one all the more so for hand-dawn film in a CG age. Also liked the relationship with Alice. Did not notice or sense even a hint of sexuality there. It was more a metaphor for a parent-child relationship in my view. The Magician was kind of like one of those benignly errant fathers who can't quite remember how he became one. I may have imagined it but rather than being attracted to her, he seemed to be constantly wracking his anxious mind on how to prepare her for his inevitable absence. In that respect his gifts seemed more symbolic of helping transform her from a kid to an adult. I may have also imagined this but she seemed several years older by the end of the film.

Her taking him for granted seemed like the inevitable attitude of youth toward an adult guardian, regardless of the youth's gender, putting me in mind of Shel Silverstein's THE GIVING TREE.

The overall sadness of the movie was well done and thankfully not at all maudlin. This is a rare animated movie in that it feels more like a short, contemplative novel than a conclusive "story". In that sense, it felt like a close relative of MARY & MAX. Ultimately THE ILLUSIONIST strikes me as being about about someone realizing, coping with, and accepting that The End is nearer and more tangible than he presumed.

A couple other quibbles: the stereotypically effeminate mincing of the rock stars backstage was kind of retrograde, IMO and tho technically well articulated it was lowbrow and one-note. The drunk was also an odd character who seemed to be wedged in at odd places for no real reason. Also Tati's movies generally have a hip "moderne" coolness in visuals and music that were missing here. Of course, that is because he didn't make this one, but without it some of the flavor I associate with him was absent.