In a bit of cinematic slight-of-hand, Jacques Tati returns from the dead for The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet’s Oscar-nominated animated feature. French national treasure Tati was known for his clownish Monsieur Hulot character, but he was also the director and principal screenwriter of his most well-known films. His daughter Sophie Tatischeff (to whom The Illusionist is dedicated) was the keeper for many years of an unproduced Tati screenplay; she handed off the material to Chomet—well-known for the likewise Oscar-nominated animated feature The Triplets of Belleville—who happily fashioned a hand-drawn adaptation. (A bone of contention: it is Tati’s uncredited, illegitimate first daughter Helga who supposedly inspired The Illusionist.)
Tati’s masterful mime easily inspires an animated treatment, recapturing his graceful comic body language and “no subtitles required” international appeal. Set in 1959, the story concerns Tatischeff, a kindly, borderline-washed-up magician living hand to mouth on the touring circuit. Though nothing ever comes easy (even his rabbit has a nasty bite), the illusionist has long since acclimated to the drudgery of the touring life, with its constant geographical disorientation and general bemusement. With little more than the clothes on his back and a single poster carried in a tube from venue to venue, the lanky magician endures but with a noticeable lack of joie de vivre.
Tatischeff makes his way from the Music Hall de Paris to a British music hall and a Scottish pub, where he captures the fancy of the establishment’s young maid. The girl invites herself on the tour, following after the illusionist like a lost puppy (their next stop: Edinburgh, depicted in glorious detail). Emotionally ill-equipped to resist the girl, the magician acquiesces, and the odd couple settles into a chaste domesticity reflective of Tati’s real-life guilty longing for a greater connection with his daughters.
This point serves as the primary thematic raison d’etre of Chomet’s slight but très charmant film, but The Illusionist can also be taken as an elegy for “bygoing” simple pleasures, including hand-drawn animation itself. Tatischeff briefly considers selling out by “turning tricks” in a department-store window, but decides he’d rather fade away than burn out, eventually conceding “Magicians do not exist.” In this sense, the magician is in prolific company, which he realizes when he and the girl check into a boarding house populated by a sad (nay, suicidal) clown and soon-to-be-extinct performers like a ventriloquist and a team of acrobats.
True to form, Chomet populates the film with such comical caricatures, each with a distinct appearance and lively set of idiosyncracies (the one moment that breaks the wistful spell is an unfortunate, politically incorrect spoof of British Invasion rockers as mincing, limp-wristed buffoons). This is not, of course, the film Tati would have made, but a lovely tribute all the same: the unhurried pace and boutique use of one-off set pieces—most notably a sequence involving the magician’s attempt to wash a car— make The Illusionist a pleasantly relaxing opportunity to laugh at life for a while rather than live it.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]