L’Illusionniste : The Illusionist

Director - Sylvain Chomet, 2010

A few years ago in 2006 I got a free DVD with the Sunday Times newspaper labelled Belleville Rendez-vous; a divergent animation that optimised society’s developing obsession with breathtaking CGI by regressing into a refreshingly original 2d motion picture, with surprising originality and humour. It was also very French. A humorous, charming, Tour De France thriller. With the success of Belleville, co-writer and composer and director Sylvain Chomet apparently went into a difficult-second-album mindset, emigrating to Edinburgh in the snowy burrows of Scotland to focus his mind and inspirations into something a little less French, perhaps. Either way after founding Django Studios for the sole purpose of his next motion picture; an adaptation of Jacques Tati‘s original manuscript ‘L’Illusionniste’, Chomet began work on capturing the Scottish landscape in the late 1950s.

In a world where fleeting glimpses into fame are commonplace courtesy of characters like Simon Cowell, ultimately satisfying our incessant need for the next big thing. Tati’s storyline explores the effect British guitar groups were having on the public, characterised here by fictitious band Billy Boy and The Britoons, culminating with the insane heights reached by that of the Beatles and the consequential, if merciless, extinction of more traditional acts like magicians and ventriloquists. But of course public taste is fickle. And whilst sympathy for him is as bottomless as his top-hat, as the illusionist waits off-stage rehearsing his precise routine to the deafening sound of screaming girls, you can’t help but get a sense that it is up to him to evolve and modernise his act. Nonetheless he isn’t completely ignored, adopting a young girl on his travels whose belief in real magic drives him.

However, admittedly society is only just beginning its long obsession with youth culture, and our protagonist isn’t getting any younger. He begins to sell-out; prostituting his trade to the Jenner’s Department Store window (still standing today), much like Lemmy with his recent Kronenberg beer advert. As we see unemployment figures become higher in today’s society, on screen we see a ventriloquist’s dummy make the transition from performer to inanimate object, sitting gathering dust in a shop window its receding price-tag throughout the film not enough to encourage a buyer.

Chomet’s stylish hand-drawn animation is drenched in personality and allure showcasing intricate details in the Scottish landscape and architecture. Much like Belleville, all dialogue tip-toes on silence allowing you to absorb the impressive scenery and, like a quiet musical concert, the audience are forced to shush and lean in further.

The actual illusions here go far beyond simply entertaining magic tricks, and essentially boil down to the many small miracles one performs throughout everyday life just to get by, concluding with what is effectively a redundancy as a result of the times a-changing. The way in which the story suddenly ends is a shock, which is Chomet’s greatest illusion of all, as I was led to believe otherwise.

– James Godwin, December 5th, 2010

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.