Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 28, 2010 8:54 am 
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A quiet animated elegy for bonds and professions past

The Illusionist is an old-fashioned pleasure after all the glossy, 3D, oddly both soulless and sentimental computerized products of recent years. It's a mostly hand-done animated feature from a story by Jacques Tati. It is not at all like Chomet's earlier film, The Triplets of Belleville. The latter was occasionally repulsive, cloying. But it was and remains an astonishing, visually rich twittering machine of a film, endlessly inventive in the manner of no one else but suggesting elemtnts of Rube Goldberg, Jean Tingueley, Paul Klee's "taking a walk with a line," and who knows what darkly droll French imaginations. Triplets is a world of ingenious line and mechanical marvel. The Illusionist is a quiet, wistful thing. Its main character, a simulacrum of the droll, deftly awkward M. Hulot character Tati created and played in his films, is an aging magician, a lonely man who finds and protects a young woman. It is not entirely willingly that he does this.

Tatischeff (Tati's real name) is finding his livelihood in Paris and London music halls usurped by peacock-vain rock musicians, and a drunken Scott discovers him performing in a pub, which leads him to a longer run in a lovingly recreated Sixties Edinburgh, with side trips to the countryside, always traveling with his plump, uncooperative white rabbit and a rolled up poster of his show. As in The Triplets of Belleville, Chomet uses almost no real dialogue, just beeps and grunts or garbled words, giving a sense of a verbal communication imperfect at best. When young Alice, a chambermaid, appears and begins following Tatischeff around, they communicate, somewhat uncertainly, by exchanging small presents. This wordlessness appropriately throws the burden to body language, which in the M. Hulot films is central and always has a subtle balance between sweetness and masked aggression. Note the marvelous moment in Mon Oncle when Hulot lights his pipe in his relative's fancy car and then flips the car lighter out the window, like a wooden match. Hulot can get away with such gestures because he's so darling and droll; but the later films are full of rage at modernity and its destruction of simple human warmth.

Tatischeff and Alice travel around for a while. She covets things, a pair of fancy shoes, a dress, a coat. When the magician gives them to her, she uses them to attract a young boyfriend, and then she can go on her way. The old man has indulged his surrogate daughter only to be abandoned. But there have been hints along the way that he found her attentions annoying and would prefer to be on his own. Some have commented that this element in the story signals Jacques Tati's complicated relations with his own daughter. Yet the whole film and especially its final sequence is full of nostalgia for old ways, a feeling embodied even in the now sadly somewhat quaint quality of hand-drawn animated film, with its subtle washes and quietly luminous colors.

The Illusionist seems a little bit wan and passé -- it clearly lacks the energy and invention of Chomet's previous feature -- but it has engaged the affections of critics and been nominated for a number of awards, including the Golden Globes, and it has been chosen by the New York Film Critics' Circle as 2010's best animated film. It has many quiet charms, but it's hard to think of it as really competing with the emotional punch and glossy accomplishment of Pixar's Toy Story 3.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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