Before there was 1More Film Blog, I posted a lot of Toronto International Film Festival coverage at Jeffrey Overstreet’s Looking Closer Journal. I always appreciated Jeff’s willingness to provide space for my reviews, so this year I wanted to honor that tradition by asking if he would like to post any of my TIFF reviews. He said he was most interested in my response to Sylvan Chomet’s The Illusionist. This review originally appeared at his blog, Looking Closer.
The Illusionist, which had its world premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, is directed by Sylvan Chomet (The Triplets of Bellevelle), based on a script by Jacque Tati, and produced by Bob Last and Jake Eberts (Watership Down), so to say it has a pedigree is a little bit like saying that a few of the ladies at the premiere of The King’s Speech were hoping to get a glimpse of Colin Firth. It is a bit of an open secret, the producers said at the premiere, that the film was a year overdue, and that delay has only heightened the anticipation of film fans.
There will be some who are disappointed in the result because some always are, but I suspect most will be pleased. The Illusionist has many of the features of Belleville that charmed audiences—distinctive, lovingly rendered two dimensional animation; a nearly mute screenplay with an emphasis on visual storytelling; a rich, atmospheric world for its characters to inhabit; and a leisurely pace—but it has a brighter palette and, perhaps, a less doleful tone.
I say “perhaps,” because as my friend Anders Bergstrom aptly noted after the film, the tone and content of Chomet’s two works are a bit in tension with each other, creating a sense of opacity for many viewers. I agree with him that while the narrative of Belleville was more optimistic and its tone and design a bit bleaker (what’s with all the gross food and feces and flies in the toilet?), the story in The Illusionist is more of a downer while its design is more bright and lustrous.
That story—about a vaudeville magician who witnesses the end of his era of artistry and its being supplanted by rock stars and media creations—may be read by some as metafictive or even autobiographical.
Last and Eberts spoke respectfully of Dreamworks’s and Pixar’s work, but also twice mentioned that trying to open against the “Shrek 4”s of the world could feel a bit like tilting at windmills. (They said, for example, that one of the first questions they had to ask themselves in making this film was “How much money are we prepared to lose?”) So The Illusionist himself could be seen as a symbol of the traditional animator seeing his (or her) craft become a lost art. That metafictive reading contributes to the bittersweet tone of the film.
Those looking for other interpretations might highlight the fact that the film is dedicated to Sophie Tatischeff, the daughter of Jacques Tati. The producers confessed this dedication was an interpretive hint on their part, suggesting that (for some of them, at least) the story could be read as an acknowledgment to the family members of all artists (and not just the illusionist) that time spent on their art is time they don’t have to give to the important relationships in their lives. This reading, too, explicates the tone of the film, making its bittersweetness more about conflicting emotions than simply about nostalgia.
Those tuned to the more frenetic pitch of contemporary animation may find themselves restless with The Illusionist’s deliberate pace and quiet temperament. But those thirsty for alternatives to stunts and explosions, who welcome that which welcomes contemplation, will find Chomet’s new film a welcome treat.