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Ce n’est pas une pipe: “The Illusionist” (Sylvain Chomet, UK)

Alors. The opening gala film at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, The Illusionist is an animated film by Sylvain Chomet, who made The Triplets of Belleville, based on an unfilmed script or treatment or scriptment by Jacques Tati. So, rather like the Kubrick-Spielberg hybrid A.I. Artificial Intelligence, it's tempting to treat it as an artifact whose uncertain authorship is its most interesting feature. But as with the fascinating blurring of two very different sensibilities seen in the earlier science fiction fairy tale, to get too caught up in that question may result in paying insufficient attention to the object itself.

Certainly Chomet's view of the world is closer to Tati's than Spielberg's to Kubrick's. His first feature paid respectful homage to Jour de fête (and being a French visual comedy with a bicycle in a central role, how could it not?) which brought Chomet to the attention of Sophie Tatischeff, who bequeathed to him one of her father's projects (there are others which, who knows, may still surface). Though Chomet dabbled with live action for his episode of Paris, je t'aime, his decision to create The Illusionist as drawings moves him a comfortable distance from Tati's work, while his "casting" of a Tati caricature as central character pulls the other way, encouraging us to see the film as a posthumous work by a (re)animated auteur.

As they say in France, whatever. The Illusionist, a tale of a magician making the rounds of the dying music hall circuit in the early sixties, acquiring a runaway teenage girl from the highlands as temporary foster-daughter (the story was Tati's tribute to his own child), is extremely charming and sometimes funny. Sometimes it echoes Tati in unexpected ways, such as the crowded backstage opening sequence, where different lines of action compete for our attention rather as they do in Playtime. Chomet's characters, all designed by the director himself, are comparable to Tati's since they exist largely in terms of overall design (costume and physiognomy) and movement. Dialogue is deemphasized, with Tatischeff the illusionist mumbling in French, his protege from the Northern Isles speaking Gaelic, and various varieties of Scottish and other voices emanating elsewhere (a solitary American in a fully-automated car expostulates a serious of fractured soundbites composed of a garbled mix of Americanese catchphrases and sheer gibberish). This means that nobody understands anybody except by the context of the scene, and like Tati, Chomet proves adept at making us understand quite nuanced interactions purely through situation and body language.

The action shifts from Paris to the Hebrides to Edinburgh, where the bulk of it unfolds. Tatischeff struggles to earn a living, supplimenting his theatrical takings with an unsuccessful stint in a garage (the jokes about technology have an unusual quality, since they're a 21st century rendition of 1960s parodies of modernity), and his young charge finds love in the arms of a hunky Scotsman clearly patterned on the young Sean Connery (Edinburgh's favourite native son). The film is a joint love letter to Tati and to the city Chomet has made his home in (Tati's story, I believe, was set in Prague), and at times there are almost too many glowing vistas of ricketty old-town quaintness. But Chomet clearly admires the way the light changes from moment to moment (the very thing that makes Scotland a difficult location to shoot live action in) and his Gallic take on Scotland, and on the Scots' take on France, reconfigures the city into a kind of dreamland. (Chomet has always been inspired by the foreign idea of Frenchness: onions worn as an adornment, and all that.)

Chomet hits the sentiment slightly harder than any Tati film ever did, although he's still impressively discrete about it compared to most. The score, which he composed himself, underplays the big moments and references Monsieur Hulot's Holiday only glancingly. The world of Chomet's movie does include a few unpleasant characters, including a gang of kids seen kicking a drunken clown, and various mean Scotsmen who deprive the magician of his earnings, which points up how singularly free of meanness Tati's own films were.

Some of the gags have an authentic Tatiesque feel, though sometimes they feel too widely spaced. Mature Tati would often go quite far out of his way to avoid the obvious joke, and deliver instead some humorous moment of behavior or observation which couldn't quite be termed a gag, and existed on some unnamed plane between insight and fantasy. You don't quite get that here, and it seems churlish to ask for it. And we should realize that, however detailed Tati's testament-script may have been, his true magic was created on the set/location, in the interplay of camera, actor and space. Even the gloriously un-PC joke of the cross-eyed man attempting to hammer in a tent-peg in Jour de fête was suggested by the presence of an actual villager with a spectacular strabismus. But sometimes it's enough for Tati to suggest a situation: the film's funniest sequence is probably that when Tatischeff suspects, wrongly, that his young ward has converted the rabbit he uses in his act into a ragoût. Chomet then extends this moment into a small symphony of wordless discomfiture.

In the end, this is a Chomet film, as it had to be. Fans of Chomet will love it, and fans of both Chomet and Tati (which I confess to being) will really love it. Those who were able to resist the charm of Chomet's previous feature may not be so pleased, although the new film represents an advance in terms of use of colour: The Triplets of Belleville achieved its nostaligic feel partly by useing a restricted palette of mucus-hues intended to evoke sepiatone, whereas The Illusionist is as radiantly rich as Tati's own movies, without losing any sense of period.

One fathers guilt to his estranged daughter stolen and repackaged by another wayward father to his ostracised daughter as a second hand show of affection.
Not sure if Sophie Tatischeff can be described as estranged: she had a strong relationship with her father, and collaborated on a movie with him. It may be true that he was absent or unattentive in her childhood. But all of that is outside the film.
Ah, right. Estranged ELDEST daughter. My mistake. An interesting and sad story. I don’t think it makes a difference to the films virtues and flaws, though.
Chomet reminds me of Bakshi had Bakshi been addicted to red wine instead of amphetamines and pot.
That’s a pretty good word-image! Chomet is slightly more narrative-focused… but only slightly. Which makes him a good match for Tati’s story.
You confess to being a Tati fan. Is there some shame in that?
The movie was written by Tati as a solemn apology to his eldest daughter Helga for the way he had abandoned her during the Second World War and not Sophie. Chomet for one reason or another has decided to neglect this historical fact much to the protests of Tati’s grandson’s who all live in the UK.
No shame in being a Tati fan, maybe I confess because I’m already prejudiced in this film’s favour. Tati wrote the film and gave it to Sophie. He never showed it to Helga, so far as I’m aware (he never met her, I believe). So we can speculate that he was thinking of his eldest daughter, and it seems psychologically plausible that she would have been on his mind, but we can’t ultimately know. Chomet has dedicated the film to the woman who gave him the script, which seems reasonable. Everything else is outside the film: it’s interesting to know, but it has no bearing on the meaning or value of the film as a film, nor could it have under any circumstances, as far as I can see.
David is your admiration for Tati not prejudicing how you interpret the back story of Tati’s L’Illusionniste? As also a admirer of Tati I’ve been watching this story unfold and there is not a shred of evidence yet presented to back your assumption that Tati had wrote and given the script to Sophie Tatischeff or that he had never met or knew his eldest daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne. What is fact however is that Sophie Tatischeff died in 2001 and Sylvain Chomet first read the script in 2003. Chomet’s own account is that, “He never met her or even spoke to her”. So it can be safely said that Sophe Tatischeff did not personally give Sylvain Chomet the script of L’Illusionniste! Pathe’s own promotional material clearly confirms the above. The script was actually kept in the French movie archive under the title, Tati No4. Is it not just a convenience to use Tati’s dead daughter as to how Chomet got hold of the script? After all she can hardly speak from the grave? Even Chomets own promotional material contradicts what he said recently in public. Does the mis-telling of why Tati wrote L’Illusionniste not deprive one of histories most sensitive movie makers his most personal analysis?
All this may be true, and I’d be interested in what comes out later. Chomet is an idiosyncratic character and he may have invented a charming story to compliment his film. I think all this isn’t ultimately relevant to the movie itself, although I’m as interested as anyone in whatever the truth may be. And the story of Tati’s first daughter seems to be confirmed, as far as Tati’s ignoble conduct is concerned. I just see it as a side-issue to the movie/s.

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