Saturday, February 12, 2011

THE ILLUSIONIST / Staff review by Evan Salazar

Melancholy and poignancy are never more potent than when found in animation; in fact, the presentation of those ideas in an animated feature is almost a subversion of the art form. We are trained to believe animation is child’s fare: simple, routine, loud, and without a dash of subtly. Bugs Bunny isn’t the most restrained of creations. Although the rules of animation don’t say that melancholy can’t exist in two dimensions, their inclusion is perhaps disquieting, or odd. Those are the precise reasons that poignancy is that much more palpable and resolute when presented in animation: it feels as if it shouldn’t be there, and its addition is disarming and emotionally penetrative. Look at Pixar’s UP for instance: what do most people talk about when they mention the movie? The first ten minutes of it.

And if ever there were an award for a film that breaks hearts in the most tender of ways, Sylvain Chomet’s THE ILLUSIONIST would win, hands down. It is the new quintessential example of emotional animation: its elegantly somber and beautiful score, its understated and lovingly-crafted mannerisms it assigns to each character, and its solemn, muted color palette that physically awakens forlorn sighs – they all culminate in an almost Stendhalian daze of pure emotion. The film invites you to reflect along with it, and it asks you with gentleness and care. By the film’s end you feel as if you are the eponymous Illusionist, wondering how the world started turning so fast when you were just getting the hang of its rotation.

The story is simple and delicate, based upon an unproduced screenplay by French cinema legend Jacques Tati (best known for his films M. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, MON ONCLE, and PLAYTIME) and concerns an illusionist based upon Tati himself who even goes by Tati’s original surname, Tatischeff. Tatischeff is an old-school magician, pulling rabbits out of his hat and revealing coins from behind little boys’ ears.  He goes from club to party to pub performing for anyone willing to look, and even for those who don’t. While staying in a small Scottish village, Tatischeff meets a young woman who truly believes that magic is real and that Tatischeff can make things materialize from thin air. She follows him to Edinburgh where they live in a hotel populated by eccentrics and strike up a loving, father-and-daughter relationship. The original screenplay by Tati is allegedly an apology to his daughter Sofia whom he spent much of his life away from (although this is a debated issue since Tati was also father to an illegitimate daughter who claims the film is meant to be an apology to her) and this invites a sad, desperate reading of the relationship between the illusionist and the girl he befriends: Tatischeff finds in the girl someone who still believes in him and someone he can look after, someone to give him meaning and purpose. But as I mentioned before, this film has something less life affirming and more melancholic in mind.

I don’t mean to paint this film as completely sorrowful and bleak – it’s not. The film had me laughing throughout, whether it was from the Scottish drunk’s incoherent mumblings or the acrobatics’ flamboyant jumping to and fro or Tatischeff’s look of pure befuddlement throughout. The film’s humor is subtle, quiet, and sweet-hearted (although there are some darkly hilarious parts I wouldn’t dare spoil). The film is mostly dialogue free, and its humor comes from the silent interactions between each character – fans of silent cinema like Chaplin, Keaton, and Arbuckle will be in for a modern treat. Its silence also adds to its depth: as anyone who has seen Chaplin’s classic film CITY LIGHTS knows, emotion that is gained so deftly from silent cinema is the most rewarding emotion of all. Its heart surpasses the need for words and connects with you on the most human and immediate of levels. THE ILLUSIONIST’s humor and feeling are skillfully reached through almost-complete silence – it makes you embarrassed for modern films that so badly want to go for your heart with a barrage of words when just a facial expression will do. It doesn’t hurt that the score, written by Chomet, is wonderfully tranquil and sincere. At times it echoes Vince Guaraldi’s score for A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, and no, I promise that is not hyperbole. It’s that good.

THE ILLUSIONIST has massive heart, but be warned: it is intent on breaking yours. However, you’ll be glad you experienced the film – a film which is unlike so much of what we get today in movie theaters. It is quiet, kind, funny, unassuming, and painfully honest. It’s an achievement in itself that it even got made, and made with such panache for that matter. And lastly, as a huge fan and supporter of all things animated, I feel obligated to tell you that you will be doing yourself a huge favor by seeing this film’s beautiful animation projected on the big screen in 35mm. Nothing beats seeing hand drawn animation on the big screen, and nothing beats the melancholy of a fantastically realized animated film. Absolutely nothing. 

By Evan Salazar, full-time student, part-time Floor Staffer, all-around cineaste extraordinaire. 

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