Old Review: The Illusionist (L’Illusionnise)

This is the story of an entertainer of a dying breed, a French performing Illusionist named Tatischeff. After losing his regular job at a French theatre, he moves to England and later Scotland to find work so he can earn money and perform. On his way, he meets a young girl named Alice, who is so amazed by his performances that she believes he can actually perform magic. She leaves and stays with him in Edinburgh, where they try to make the most out of their simple and small life, while the entertaining world moves around them. Trying to make a living so he and his new fan can be happy, he tries all he can to earn money by performing even in the most uncomforting places. As his life as an entertainer is running short, he must make choices of how he should continue his life, and make sure Alice doesn’t go the wrong path.

There is a little controversy concerning the origins of the story. What is certain is that the film is based off a screenplay by the French Director and Comic Actor Jacques Tati, written in 1956 for what was meant to be a live action film, which didn’t even leave the cutting room floor. The uncertain information regards what it was meant to be about and how Chomet got his hands on the screenplay. For how he got a hold of the screenplay, one source claims he was given it from the owners of Tati’s archives not long after the premiere of “The Triplettes of Belleville”, a film Chomet directed with great influences on Tati’s work. Another source claims Chomet was given the screenplay by Tati’s second daughter, Sophie in 2000. He didn’t intend on adapting it to an animated feature, since he preferred to make original stories, but after reading the script he had his story in his head. The main controversy revolves around the claim that Tati wrote the screenplay as an apology for abandoning his first daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, with many people criticizing Chomet for not giving her any recognition of her in the film, with the film being dedicated to Sophie Tati instead. His argument was that it was an apology to Sophie, since Tati spent a lot of time away acting and making films to see her grow up. While the film is considered a British-French Production, the majority of the production happened in Scotland, both at Django Films in Edinburgh and Digital.ink in Dundee. Starting in 2006, the production team grew from 180 to 300 and the budget increased from £10 million to £17 million. The film was first released in France on June 16th 2010 and while not financially successful, it was nominated a Golden Globe, Annie and an Academy Award.

To give credit where it is worth, the animation and character design has considerably improved since Chomet’s previous film, Triplettes of Belleville. Animation is quite detailed and realistic, with CGI animated parts blending really well with the 2D animation, it’s almost like you can’t tell that computers are being used for the majority of the animation. Character designs are thankfully much improved, while varied they look like realistic and relatable people, so I was easily able to focus on the story more easily like it was a live action film. While the film isn’t really made to have the most stunning backgrounds, since the main settings are indoors, the film has really great environmental settings, with the city of Edinburgh being very detailed to look like the real place, and the mountainous views of Scotland have an atmospheric feel to it.

I really love the soundtrack to this film, it’s a calm array of different styles ranging from mellow jazz, sixties rock, Scottish classical and some really great piano compositions orchestrated by Terry Davies, all of which were surprisingly written by Chomet himself. While there aren’t fun songs such as “Belleville Rendezvous”, the music really sets the mood and helps create some really charming and memorable scenes. The Illusionist is mainly a silent film so there’s no real point in explaining the voice acting from the few pieces of dialogue; I found it a bit odd that most of the dialogue is in French despite most of the characters and environment being set in Scotland.

As far as people believe, Tati wrote the screenplay as an apology to his daughter, which one can only be answered by Tati himself. While fans of Tati’s work have mixed views on how Chomet portrays this, I feel that it does. It shows how much Tatischeff does to make Alice happy, despite how his kind of entertainment goes down in popularity and he struggles along with other kinds of entertainment to make a living, while music and TV gain in popularity, and because he’s focused on doing what he can to get food and a home to stay in, he misses out on what the young girl has been doing. One thing I liked was how Alice transforms from a simple poor looking cleaner to a mature young woman, and that at the end it is clear that she would live a happy normal life. It’s a good character driven story, and I do sympathies with all the main character.

It’s an absolute shame this was overshadowed by two multimillion schlock films at the time of its release. This film is relaxing and great to watch with a good story and great music; I wish there were more films like this both animated and live action. However, even if 2D animation is no more, that shouldn’t stop you watching this film on DVD anytime soon.

The Illusionist is available from Pathé Films and Sony Pictures Classics. The original screenplay by Jacques Tati hasn’t had any public release, which would be interesting to read what the original story was, if the film was only based on, and not a direct adaptation.

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