It’s only January, and I shouldn’t be resorting to the use of superlatives this early in the year. I’m going to go out on a limb anyway: in my humble opinion, you are unlikely to see a more charming film in 2011 than The Illusionist, a new animated feature opening this Friday, January 21, at the Shattuck Cinemas.
Directed by Sylvain Chomet, whose delightful The Triplets of Belleville was an art-house hit and multiple Academy Award nominee in 2004, The Illusionist tells the story of Tatischeff, an aging French magician plying his trade in the disappearing world of vaudeville circa the early 1960s. It’s a world of decaying theatres, drafty dressing rooms, and audiences more interested in the big beat sounds of Billy Boy and the Britoons than in a man who can pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Finding work in Paris increasingly hard to come by, Tatischeff eagerly accepts a sozzled Scotsman’s invitation to entertain at his Highland local. While there, our hero meets Alice, a poor young scullery maid in whom he takes a fatherly interest and, after his pub engagement ends, the unlikely couple depart for Edinburgh, where they share lodgings in a hotel populated by other down-and-out music hall entertainers, including a suicidal clown and an alcoholic ventriloquist.
Tatischeff’s situation is little better in the big city, however, and he’s forced to take jobs well below his dignity: first as a garage mechanic, then as a ‘living mannequin’ in the window of a fancy department store, where he conjures up ladies’ lingerie and perfume. What little he earns he invests in new clothing and coiffures for Alice, who begins a relationship with a handsome young neighbor. By film’s end, she’s grown up and flown the coop and Tatischeff is once again alone, homeless, and unemployed.
The story of The Illusionist’s production is as intriguing as the film itself. In 2001, Chomet contacted the estate of French comic Jacques Tati in hopes of receiving permission to include an excerpt from the funnyman’s 1951 feature Jour de Fête in The Triplets of Belleville. Tati’s daughter Sophie was impressed with Chomet and told him of The Illusionist, an unproduced screenplay her father had penned in the late 1950s.
Tati correctly assessed that the character of Tatischeff was too serious for his comic alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, to represent: indeed, Tatischeff had more in common with Archie Rice, the lead character in John Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer, than he did with Hulot. Though it had lain dormant for more than forty years, Chomet loved the script, the Tati estate granted him permission to adapt it, and The Illusionist began its seven-year journey to the big screen.
Chomet lived in Edinburgh during the film’s long gestation period, and the final product is as much a love song to his adopted home as it is to the genius of Tati. Using hand-drawn flat animation (and less reliant on the Bakshi-style grotesqueries of Belleville), The Illusionist captures the essence of that chilly, hilly city. It also features the most memorable bunny to hit the big screen since Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a fish and chip shop that serves both deep-fried chocolate bars and Lobster Thermidor, and even Jacques Tati himself: when Tatischeff briefly ducks into the appropriately named Cameo Cinema, the great man’s Mon Oncle is playing on the big screen. Melancholic and droll in equal measure, this is a film that will be treasured by anyone who loves classic animation, Jacques Tati, or men in kilts.
Also opening at the Shattuck Cinemas on Friday (in this case for an exclusive one-week run), the recently restored Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today is an important and still relevant U.S. War Department documentary from 1946. A tale of justice renewed and restored, Nuremberg blends footage shot during the trial of the major German war criminals under the jurisdiction of the International Military Tribunal with Nazi film recovered, ironically, by the OSS, and provides a brief but damning summary of the crimes for which the suspects were charged. It is, in short, a bittersweet record of a time when the international rule of law was reaching its apex. Kudos to Sandra Schulberg, daughter of director Stuart Schulberg, for restoring her father’s film — which, as per its subtitle, still has lessons to teach us today.