The Illusionist

The Illusionist (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

A French magician (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) made a living by playing in small pubs, basements, and coffee shops. If he was lucky enough, he was allowed to perform in a music hall after a big band with a whole lot of screaming and giggling admirers. He loved his craft but the magic of illusion was waning. It probably had something to do with the lack of variety in his tricks. But when he met a girl named Alice (Eilidh Rankin) who believed that the magician possessed real powers, he invited her on a trip to the capital of Scotland. They lived together and he gave her wonderful gifts. However, he knew that it was only a matter of time until he had to inform her that he was just an ordinary man. Directed by Sylvain Chomet, “The Illusionist” was a touching film because it captured the many complex emotions the magician felt as he went on stage and saw that not many people were interested in his art. It was personal for him because he defined himself as his art. If his art was forgotten or ignored, so was he. During his performances, the applause were very scattered; the awkwardness was so pronounced, I wished I heard no applause at all. I was impressed with the hand-drawn animation. It was easy to notice the attention to detail. When the magician was on stage, there were moments when the director showed us the audiences’ expressions. Some were hopelessly bored, others were slightly amused, and a few didn’t want to be there at all. I found it important that their expressions told me a story. For instance, those who didn’t enjoy the tricks probably felt obligated to stay because they paid a good sum of money to see a performance. Maybe some were simply too tired to get up from their seats because the last performance took a lot out of them. What I found fascinating was its lack of dialogue. Some French and English words were occasionally thrown under surreptitious whispers and exasperated groans but the recognizable words didn’t mean anything. The meaning was in the body language, the facial expressions, and the way a light of a certain color hit a character’s face. (Even the rabbit the magician used had a personality.) The insignificance of language was highlighted when we watched the characters converse behind windows. We heard no sound. The images didn’t have to mean anything. It was up to us to think and interpret what we thought the characters were feeling or thinking when they were admiring an article of clothing or just standing in the rain and not really looking at anything. The strength of “L’illusionniste” was its willingness to take risks. As a society, we’re so dependent on language to tell us what is that we often forget that sometimes the more important things are discreetly embedded in the unsaid. The careful musings supported by delicate music felt very zen. Despite the story’s medium being animation, it worked as a slice-of-life picture.

3 replies »

  1. Franz,

    I liked the “The Illusionist” quite a bit, although I suspect that you like it more than I did. I too got a sort of zen-like feeling from the film, and I thought it was well-observed in many of the same ways that you pointed to. I loved the style of animation as well. That said, I have no deep familiarity with Jacques Tati, the French comedic actor the movie is both referencing and whom the main character is apparently based on. Maybe that would have given me a richer experience.

    • I have no familiarity whatsoever with Jacques Tati either (I just Googled him and I’m still “???”) but I enjoyed the movie just the same. Although I //am// beginning to wonder if children will be interested in the movie given its laid back tone and style.

      • Franz,

        I’ve seen some short clips from Tati films before, and he’s considered something like a French Chaplin or Keaton, although I’m unsure if he has the emotional (“The Kid”) or political resonance (“The Great Dictator”) of the former or the physicality (“College”) and vision (“The General”) of the latter. I’ll get around to his films someday, as I promise myself with every corner of the world cinema canon, without ever getting there.

        I don’t think “The Illusionist” was intended for a kid audience, either. It’s too melodramatic and comtemplative. It could also be that the (I think, beautiful) animation style could seem a little off to kids of today, as they are more familiar with the richly detailed slickness (not intended as a negative) of Disney and Pixar, and other computer-animated films.

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