“Magicians are not magic, they are human too”
“The Illusionist” (2010) is on Tuesday 27th of September, at the Gaborone Film Society, 7 pm at
the A/V Centre at Maru a Pula School. It is from Scotland and France and is the latest film by
animator and storyteller Sylvain Chomet who made his mark with the award winning. The
Triplets of Belleville (2003). (Mmegi, 13 December 2006).
Chomet was on his way to Cannes by train in 2003 when he finally took time to read a script
given to him by Jacques Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff. She had passed on and Chomet had
set it aside. Jacques Tati, the great French cinematic innovator and entertainer, died at 75 in
1982. He will always be remembered for his Monsieur Hulot. Tati had written in 1956 a rough
draft of the script for what has eventually become The Illusionist; he had become engrossed in
his Play Time (1967). Tati’s first film was Jour de fête (1949). It was followed by Mr Hulot’s
Holiday (1953) and my uncle (1958).
The Illusionist is very much a Chomet movie, but one that honours Jacques Tati. It traces, in
animated form, a relationship between a young adolescent woman and an aging magician. Which
daughter Tati was writing about and is represented in this tale we will never know: his elder first
daughter who was illegitimate and abandoned; or his second daughter who he was often away
from for his work and travels. His grandson Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald claims it is his
mother Helga Marie-Jeanne, whom Tati abandoned. He calls the film a “grotesque eclectic
nostalgic homage to its author”
The Illusionist can be enjoyed on its own merits. It has been moved from Prague, Tati’s original
venue for his tale, to Edinburgh. This is because Chomet lived and worked in Scotland for a
number of years after living in Montreal where The Triplets of Belleville was made. In some
ways this film is more a tribute to Edinburgh in the 1950s, as its atmosphere then is conveyed
with more strength than the story of the man and girl (I feel this because I was a student there
then). A challenge in watching The Illusionist is to recognize happenings, like when the magician
goes to the Cameo Theatre to see a movie—which one of Tati’s films is being shown?
Tatischeff (voice of Jean-Claude Donda) the magician leaves Paris for London and after some
performances there seeks further afield for audiences. From grand theatres like the Royal Music
Hall, he moves down to vaudeville stages, and then he is forced to perform in pubs and
eventually even in an apartment store window. When he first arrives in Scotland he moves west
to the isles, following the route from Fort William to Skye and then on to an outer island. He
carries with him his paraphernalia, his special hat, and his live rabbit—which has a temper—and
a display poster of the night’s performance that is printed on heavy cloth that he can roll up and
use over and over again.
At a pub on a small island a young woman, Alice (voice of Eilidh Rankin) is fascinated by
Tatischeff and his performances. He pretends that his gifts for her are part of his magic. Her old
clogs he transforms into red shoes much to her joy. When he leaves to go back to the mainland
she follows and they become a team—like father and daughter. They rent a self-catering
apartment in a sleazy hotel and she cleans and cares for him while he goes out to perform.
The story is slow, captivating, but not exciting; it is more sentimental than vibrant. Alice sees
things in shop windows that she admires and Tatischeff in some way is able to obtain the item
for her. Most delightful are the sequences concerning a coat. There is very little dialogue, as it is
not really necessary. What counts is the images. These are wonderful, a mixture of hand-painted
pictures and digital imagery, usually very tender and in pastels or sombre colours. This film is a
magnificent visual experience.
At Joe’s Hotel Tatischeff gets the couch to sleep on while Alice has the bedroom. Their
resources are meagre and all they can afford is fish and chips. There are fine scenes of the
Dumbydykes and King Arthur’s Seat, Princess Street and the diversity and beauty that is
Edinburgh’s, including the central castle and the university. A subtle humour is spread
throughout; the most elaborate being a scene when the conjuror believes Alice has cooked his
prickly rabbit for their dinner.
Other performers occupy Joe’s Hotel, including a suicidal clown and a team of acrobats. These
also lead to some amusing sketches. Tatischeff is always reserved, but supporting of Alice. He
indulges her with small presents, products of his prestidigitation. But her destiny does not lie
with him. He will eventually have to return to London and Paris without her. Magicians are not
magic, they are human too.
“The Illusionist” is one hour and 17 minutes long. It is rated PG (there are images of smoking
and a failed suicide). It is in English with English subtitles. The director is Sylvain Chomet who
also wrote the music. Sylvain Chomet used an original screenplay by Jacques Tati written in
1956 and set in Prague, The art director is Bjarne Hansen. The producers are Sally Chomet and
Bob Last. Enjoy !