Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Illusionist

I finally went to this one Saturday night, after having tried to see it the previous Sunday, and was gratified to see how crowded it was on its second weekend, including a bunch of families. Boutique cinemas don't often have PG-rated films, so I do tend to worry about whether the audience will even be able to find it or not when one does open at Kendall Square and nowhere else.

I hope that some of the people who came to see the new one from the director of The Triplets of Belleville came away with some interest in the films of Jacques Tati; to Sylvain Chomet's credit, he pointed audiences at them pretty directly, with a clip of Mon Oncle showing up within the movie. One thing I don't get, though, is why the companies that own the rights to distribute Triplets and Tati's movies aren't on top of this: From a quick look at Amazon, Triplets is not available on Blu-ray, and of Tati's four films handled by Criterion, Mon Oncle and M. Hulot's Holiday are only available on DVD, Playtime is only available on Blu-ray, and Trafic is not available at all.

I don't get this. I figure Sony will likely have a Blu-ray of Triplets to release alongside The Illusionist, but for Criterion (or whoever currently has the rights, if not them), when is there going to be a better time to put out a boxed set of the Tati films on either DVD or Blu-ray? The guy is not going to have a higher profile than he does right now, sad to say. It's not a gigantic (re-)emergence into the mainstream, but I doubt that there will be quite so many people talking about how Tati was resurrected by Chomet and why this is such a good thing when The Illusionist comes out on video. For better or worse, movies are considered art when released to the cinemas, discussed in terms of influence and merit, but product when released on video, with the reviews then talking less about those things and more about picture quality, bonus content, and what sort of commercial success it had. Thus, I would think now is the time to have these movies available, while people are talking at least a little bit about Tati in relation to this movie.

Ah, well. Here's the review; check back after the link to EFC for a little discussion of the end.

L'illusioniste (The Illusionist)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

At first, The Illusionist looks amazingly simple and sweet - two kind people, perhaps not used to having their generosity returned, are lucky enough to find each other and create a life together. To say more may perhaps be to say too much, but I don't think it is crossing a line to say that there's not a minute of this beautifully animated movie that is not beautiful - even the sad parts. Maybe especially the sad parts.

It is 1959, and M. Tatischeff is a stage magician of some skill and a charmingly formal demeanor on-stage and off. His next booking takes him to England, but the crowd he sees there vanishes after the band they came to see plays. A drunken Scotsman likes the act, though, and brings him north to play at his pub. There, he meets Alice, the maid who cleans his room and washes his shirts, and is so surprised when he buys her a new pair of shoes that she stows away with him when he moves on to Glasgow. There, they move into a hotel filled with other performers, but it's hard for a stage magician to provide for himself and his rabbit, let alone a teenage girl whose eyes light up when she passes shop windows.

Tatischeff's name is a reference to Jacques Tati, the French writer, director, and actor who made a series of not-quite-silent films around this time period, and indeed wrote the original screenplay of The Ilusionist but never filmed it. It is not necessary to be familiar wtih Tatii's films to appreciate this one; director Sylvain Chomet's own style is just as apparent, if not more so. And yet, in the middle of the same sort of caricature as his previous film, The Triplets of Belleville, Tatischeff's ancestry is obvious; he looks like Tati and has the same combination of straight-backed dignity and befuddlement as Tati's M. Hulot, and even moves the same way. He's not Hulot, though when he inevitably finds his way into a theater showing Mon Oncle, there's a moment when previously unknown brothers seem to recognize each other. Chomet, his animators, and voice actor Jean-Claude Donda make Tatischeff a distinct character, with his own charm, quirks, and personality.

Full review at EFC.

Warning: I'm going to give my reactions to the end of the movie now. If you haven't seen it and don't want that part colored by my words, go somewhere else now.

As I state in the review, The Illusionist makes an interesting change in its second half - going from two lost souls finding each other to those same characters (and others) facing change with varying degrees of success. The ways the other performers in the hotel wind up is dark - we see one trying to hang himself until comforted by Alice's bringing him a meal, showing him that somebody cares and is thinking of him, while the site of the ventriloquist's dummy in a pawnshop window is just about the saddest thing you'll ever see.

Alice, herself, seldom seems to be troubled by this upheaval - Tatischeff works his second jobs so as not to be seen by her, reaping the tangible benefits of an indulgent father figure. Indeed, some of the people in the theater seemed to find her pretty unsympathetic, especially toward the end; when Tatischeff's final letter says "there's no such thing as magicians", he's saying that the money and things he give her don't magically appear, and she's been demanding. It might be interesting to see what she becomes after the end - has she become an independent woman, or simply found a new man to sponge off, this one a boyfriend rather than a father figure? I tend to think the former - we've seen from the beginning that she's willing to work, but who can tell? Chomet ends the film in a deliberately ambiguous manner - she's received a father's love, and now needs to learn about a man's love on her own.

Tatischeff's resolution is, in its way, even more intriguingly vague: He divests himself of everything in the end, walking out of Alice's life, selling his magician's equipment, and even setting his rabbit free in a field. It's almost cruel - as much as he may be a biter, the bunny is not really a wild animal, and there's a look to it that says "what am I supposed to do?" in its final scene. It's an odd choice, especially after he'd been so worried about whether Alice had made a rabbit stew earlier. He boards a train and heads south, presumably back to France. Whatever awaits him there, he is not going to be a magician any more - maybe he's going to find a place where he fits in and live a normal life. It's up to the audience to decide whether this is more sad or healthy (he's not going to become a homeless wreck like some other performers).

That is, I suppose, the ultimate choice for people like Tatischeff - when do you stop following your dreams and settle down? You want to say never, but is it not better to do so before it destroys you? We last see Tatischeff in a train car with a woman and her child, and though his gear is gone, he can't help but do a small trick for the kid. I suspect that what's going on here is a less didactic version of the usual coming-of-middle-age moral: That Alice is not the only one who has moved on to the next stage of life at the end; M. Tatischeff has learned that the greatest satisfaction in life is raising a family - being a traveling entertainer is a young man's game, after all, and its time he left it behind.

We don't know what Alice, M. Tatischeff, or even the rabbit will make of the rest of their days. They will probably be relatively ordinary lives, but I like to think that they will be happy, informed by an adventurous youth.

(I also like to think that Alice will be out walking in the fields one day, see the bunny, and bring it home. I'm an optimist, and don't think she's ultimately a selfish person.)

No comments: