January 03, 2011

MOVIES: The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

The Illusionist is director Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to The Triplets of Belleville, but it's a very different movie, with none of the manic energy of Triplets. Chomet has adapted an unproduced script by Jacques Tati to make a story of low-key melancholy and wistful charm.

The illusionist of the title is M. Tatischeff; that was Tati's birth name, and the character looks very much like Tati. (At one point, Tatischeff wanders into a movie theater where a Tati film is playing; this is just a bit too cutesy.) He is a stage magician, grabbing whatever jobs he can find as the European vaudeville/music hall tradition slowly fades away in the late 1950s.

In a small Scottish town, he meets Alice, a young chambermaid who's still innocent enough to believe that his magic is real; she comes with him when he leaves town, and they settle into a cheap hotel room in Edinburgh. Alice is enchanted by the beautiful clothes she sees in store windows; Tatischeff sneaks out of their room at night to work demeaning odd jobs in order to buy them for her.

When the movie attempts slapstick and physical humor, it doesn't quite work. The pleasure of watching actors do that kind of humor lies in admiring their physical control, their timing, their discipline; those joys are gone when watching animated people, who can do whatever the animator wants them to. That's not to say this style of humor can't work in animation -- look at the Pixar short Presto, for instance -- but to make it work, the timing has to be even more crisp and precise than in live-action. And "crisp" is not a word that anyone would apply to The Illusionist, which is rooted in hazy, soft-focus nostalgia for a bygone era.

The movie's best moments don't rely on that type of physical energy; there's a lovely sequence in which Tatischeff grows increasingly concerned that his rabbit seems to have gone missing as Alice serves him a bowl of stew. Chomet's animation is beautifully done, and the movie's gorgeous to look at. But the charms of The Illusionist are very understated, and the movie is so subtle and wispy that it threatens to evaporate right off the screen even as you watch it. For me, it's ultimately too low-key and delicate to be memorable.

No comments: