Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Illusionist (L'Illusionniste) Movie Review: Mr. Hulot's Magician

French animator Sylvain Chomet’s second feature film, The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste), is adapted from an original screenplay by Jacques Tati that was never produced. Tati was the great French actor-writer-director of such comedies as Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle featuring Tati as the character of Monsieur Hulot, a bumbling, pipe-smoking comic character. The Illusionist was inspired by Tati’s daughter and was intending as a work for the two of them together.

Chomet established himself as a kindred spirit of Tati’s with his first animated feature, the brilliantly strange The Triplets of Belleville. Like Tati’s films, Chomet’s earlier film is without dialogue, but anything but silent. It background noise and chatter in addition to sound effects as tools to enhance the narrative. In that sense, Chomet was the perfect choice to adapt the unproduced Tati screenplay. The animation allows Chomet to create the world of Mr. Hulot in the late 1950s and to resurrect Tati’s great character without gimmickry and tricks.

The main character is a recreation of Mr. Hulot with the same tall and lumbering physique. There’s a wonderful little touch late in the film when he enters a cinema showing Mon Oncle and he looks up at the screen to see “himself” (actual film footage is inserted into the animation) almost looking down off the screen. He is the illusionist of the title, a craftsman of an artistic talent that is fading from popularity with the advent of rock and roll. An early gig in Paris has him trying to take the stage following the exalted performance of a Beatles-like rock band. The audience dwindles to a handful of indifferent supporters and later he finds himself taking gigs in obscure places, eventually winding up in a Scottish pub on a coastal island.

The pub converts from candlelight to electric bulbs on the very night that he performs for the first time. He plays to a captive audience once, but the encroachment of modern civilization will inevitably drive him out. A girl who watches him is fascinated by his tricks, which she mistakes for real supernatural powers when he produces a new pair of red shoes for her. The girl, Alice, hitches along with him to Edinburgh and they take a room together.

No, nothing tawdry is going on. In fact, their relationship has the sweetness of a father-daughter bond. He goes off to look for work, taking increasingly odd jobs for lack of work for magicians, while she stays at home and cooks meals. He’s unable to break the biggest illusion he’s created, which is Alice’s belief that he can do real magic. So he continues to spend his money on gifts for her.

All this is presented as a bittersweet sending off of things old in favor of modernity. The boarding house where they stay is populated by other obsolete performers including a ventriloquist and a team of acrobats. The problem is that I don’t grant the film’s premise. The days of vaudeville may be long over, but magicians certainly continue to entrance audiences today. Ventriloquism may be a disappearing art, but you can still catch the occasional stand-up comedian who specializes in the technique. Even the Hulot character is hardly defunct. His style of silent bumbling comedy was re-popularized by Rowan Atkinson with his very popular “Mr. Bean” television show and not one, but two movies.

Chomet’s animation is full of great and wondrous detail and teeming with life. It’s as visually impressive as The Triplets of Belleville but I felt myself much more drawn into the story in that first film of his. That story, with its bizarre mother-son relationship and the never ending cycling (including across the Atlantic), lent itself much better to the idiosyncratic style that Chomet is known for.

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