Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Catching up on Indiewire’s 100 Best Films of the Decade that I haven’t seen.
A down on his luck, old school stage magician traipses from one crummy gig to the next. His act is charming, but lacks panache, and his audiences are indifferent. Then he is sent to a remote Scottish village, where the unsophisticated locals are dazzled by his tricks, and where he picks up a stowaway; a curious young woman who becomes his companion on the road.
Based on an unproduced script by French cinema legend Jacques Tati, this delightful animated film strikes a tone that is gently comic, and quietly sad. It is a hat tip to the bottom tier of the entertainment industry, and recognition of the folks who go on stage at night, every night, to try and bring a little colour into the world, whatever their own personal problems. It is a thankless task, and none of them would be doing anything else.
The film has a remarkable look, the animation distinguished by the incredible detail included in the location settings. Edinburgh has never looked so enticing; a city of lights, theatres, boulevardes, windows and shadows.
The main characters have very expressive faces as well, which is important; there are only about five lines of dialogue in the entire movie. But you can understand perfectly what they are thinking and feeling through a combination of demanour and body language, and the occasional murmur. This is a difficult way to convey some pretty complex emotions, but it is executed perfectly and somehow adds to the wistful tone.
The centre of the movie is the relationship between The Illusionist and his ward, Alice. Reading about the origins of this story, it seems to be about Tati and his daughters (different daughters, depending on which version you believe). The director had difficult relationships with his children, and may have intended this as a project he could work on with one of them. Whatever the reason, Tati’s onscreen avatar clearly has a fatherly interest in Alice, buying her clothes and other gifts, and keeping her safe.
It is not clear why he does any of this, or what either of their objectives are. The key thing is that they enjoy each other’s company; and each provides the other with a break in routine, when they had both been searcing for just that. There is a wonderful sequence where Alice makes a pot of stew, and feeds not only the two of them, but other poverty line performers in the boarding house where they stay. A brief moment of sun.
But time rolls on, and in best movie tradition, the character’s conflicting arcs pull them apart. The Illusionist tries to make a straight living so he can take care of Alice – the most Tati-esque scene in the movie involves him trying to wash a car as part of a night job – but fails. And, ultimately, he doesn’t really want to. The road calls, and it is time for the next town, and the next crummy gig. He cannot give it up. Alice, for her part, has adapted to life in the big city anyway, and seems ready for independence.
Facts which make the characters sudden parting no less devastating:
‘There are no magicians.’
A special little movie, delivered with a lot of heart and style. Also starring: one of the great bunny rabbits of cinema.