The Illusionist is one of the loveliest films you’ll see all year. An animated tale of an outmoded French entertainer in the Scotland of 1959, the film reminds us of one of the most enduring pleasures of cinema, of entertaining without words (and those who remember the director’s 2002 film Belleville Rendezvous will know what to expect). Few current films have the confidence to use image and sound so effectively in their storytelling, and it’s always a refreshing delight to be enthralled in this way.
The film opened this June’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, with the festival organisers laying on street performances outside the theatre that recreated characters, magicians and trapeze artists from the film, conjuring up the pleasures of a bygone age.
At an interview event in which he explained the process of making the film, director Sylvain Chomet spoke about his love for, and artistic debt to, Jacques Tati. It’s Tati’s unfilmed script from which the film was developed, and his influence is all over both of Chomet’s features to date. The illusionist of the title was modelled on Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s most famous creation. The script was written, poignantly, for Tati’s own daughter, and in one glorious episode Chomet’s character comes face to face with the ever-polite, ever-bumbling, celluloid Hulot in an Edinburgh cinema. In offering pleasures alternative to 99% of all new cinema, The Illusionist seems like an affirmation of the past—nostalgia made relevant.
The Illusionist is also made with precisely the same comedic DNA as Tati’s films. Tati’s humour was pretty unusual (ITV’s Mr Bean offered an anaemic version of it); absurd visual gags were set up and left hanging, the humour coming not from punchlines but from the delicious situations themselves. An incident from Tati’s schooling planted a seed for all this: In Tati’s English class an enthusiastic teacher would encourage students to act out commands while repeating target phrases, in this case “I open the door, I close the door”. Spotting the chance to make the class laugh, Tati volunteered, wandered over to the door, opened it (“I open the door”), stepped through and, (“I close the door”) shut it behind him. Outside the classroom Tati wondered for a moment which would be funnier; to go back in and meet his peers’ applause, or to hide in the toilets until the end of the class. In the end he simply snuck out of school entirely and spent the rest of the day at home, leaving his improvised joke hanging absurdly forever.