Sylvain Chomet’s new animated feature film The Illusionist (2010) is a visual wonder and a profound and loving homage to Scotland, his adopted land. Using techniques that recall the many nineteenth-century water-colourists who portrayed Oban, the Western Isles and the magnificent skyline of Edinburgh, Chomet’s affectionate and suggestive land- and cityscapes are instantly recognisable to anyone who has visited these places. But none of us has ever seen them quite like this, in digitally enhanced nostalgic pastels and in long shots, close-ups, three-quarters, bird’s eye and panoramic aspects, in a delicate, exhilarating ballet of buildings and hills, seas and moors. In addition, this is not the Scotland of today, but the Scotland of 1960 —or at least, a heavily-researched, but probably slightly fictional Scotland of yesteryear. The models of trains, coaches and cars are all just as I remember from my childhood, from Austin Babies down to those weird single-decker motor coaches with chrome-plated shark-fins on the roof at the rear. Princes Street, Arthur’s Seat, Jenner’s department store, the Grassmarket, the Scott Monument, Waverley Station (and I’m sure it’s the old platform 19, the furthest over to the Castle side)—everything is there, identifiable, and as accurate as a loving dream of a long-gone, dowdy, grimy Auld Reekie could possible make it.
But the film is a disaster. If you do not know Scotland and aren’t interested in how a watercolourist’s eye can be turned into an animated film, you could easily nod off long before the end. The reasons for this spectacular mismatch between the artistry of the animation and the quality of the movie itself are not mysterious, but quite easy to explain.
‘L’Illusionniste’ is a film script written by Jacques Tati probably around 1957, at any rate after the accident which deprived him of full use of his right wrist, and before or during his work with Pierre Étaix on Mon Oncle in 1958. It tells the story of a music-hall magician on the decline, whose agent can now only get him jobs performing not very good conjuring tricks to gullible yokels in the back of beyond. In the script, the reservoir of exploitable naivety is located in a generic Eastern Europe, not just because Tati imagined Ruritania still existing somewhere beyond the Danube but because he was negotiating at that time with the Czech authorities to make a co-production agreement, and had visited Prague several times with that in mind. He was particularly interested in the techniques used by the Laterna Magica team, who mixed cinema and stage, and also used devices very close to the pre-Lumière technology of hand-drawn cartoons on celluloid. But there’s no evidence that Tati ever thought of ‘L’Illusionniste’ as anything other than a full-colour movie with live actors.
Having a live actor perform prestidigitation clumsily enough for the film viewer to see how bad it is but good enough to enchant at least one gullible member of a fictional audience is a technical challenge, similar to those Tati set himself as a mime and as a comic film artist. The plong! of a cello string is the noise of the swing door at the Hôtel de la Plage in Les Vacances de M Hulot (M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953), but it is comic because it is also not quite the noise that any real swing door could make. Hulot’s gawky three-step on the absurd paving stones of the Maison Arpel in Mon Oncle (1958) is likewise a supreme act of mime, showing that Tati is and at the same time is not a giraffe. A mimed conjuring act that goes wrong might have been a turn of a broadly similar kind—but when done by an animated cartoon character, it is not the same thing at all. It’s no great deal to make a cartoon character do whatever you want. Chomet’s transposition of a Tati gag from the medium of mime to the medium of animation changes its nature entirely—and makes it just a bit pointless, too.
In the script Tati wrote, the clumsy conjuror attracts a naïve young woman who believes that he really can do magic. She attaches herself to him, comes with him to the Big Town (another idea, called ‘La Grande Ville’, which would eventually grow into Playtime (1967), seems to germinate in these pages of the script). There she meets an “intellectual” who shows her that there is no magic in the conjuror’s art, only a form of cheating. She leaves the conjuror for her new beau, and he in his turn departs on the next train out, saddened, older, and still just down and out. End of story. Chomet’s movie follows the same narrative, though by having the attractions of shop windows rather than the demystification of magic the main force drawing the girl away to a different life.
What Chomet does in addition, however, is to make the conjuror into Jacques Tati. In my view this is a major liberty, if not a mistake. It is true that Tati played the lead role in every one of the movies he actually made, but it is simply not possible that he intended to act this role. He was not a conjuror in any sense, and after 1956 he could not even wear a wrist watch on his right hand, since his injury had left him with only a few degrees of rotation of the wrist. How could he have mimed the hand-work of a conjuror, clumsy or not? In fact, we know from Pierre Etaix that the role was written and intended for him. It’s often thought that ‘L’Illusionniste’ was abandoned because Tati and Etaix quarreled. But it may also be that it was dropped because, in all honesty, it is not very good. As with ‘L’Occupation de Berlin’ and, later on, ‘Confusion’, there’s no trace of even the beginnings of a deal to set ‘L’Illusionniste’ on the road to actual production.
Making a cartoon Tati-clone the conjuror in the story turns Chomet’s movie into the last adventure of M. Hulot. But that is quite incoherent in terms of the Hulot persona as it was developed over the twenty years between Les Vacances de M Hulot and Trafic (1971). The “real” Hulot has no trade, profession, activity or social integration of any sort. That accounts for much of his ineffable charm, and his power to upset and subvert all the social orders he encounters. That he should also be a conjuror, if not a very good one, just doesn’t make sense to a Tati-fan.
You could say that Chomet’s animation is not made for old Tati-fans but for a new generation of viewers. But it’s not as straightforward as that. Whether doing a night-job in a garage to earn a few old pence, getting interrupted by a drunk at a garden party or trying to get upstairs in a hotel when he’s drunk himself, Chomet’s Hulot-figure repeats with remarkable physical accuracy the episodes, gestures, movements and gaffes of the hero of Trafic, Mon Oncle, and Les Vacances de M Hulot. The Illusionist is made of brilliantly simulated Tati-clips, and in that sense it is vastly more interesting and amusing to old Tati-fans like myself than it can be for new generations who have yet to see the classic movies that the real Jacques Tati made.
Not much happens in Tati’s films, but there is much more to the art of non-narrative cinema than not having a story to tell. The basic narrative of ‘L’Illusionniste’ could be the story-line of a novel by Balzac or Henry James, or of a play by Pinter or Chehov: a tired-out man who is no longer young attracts an ingénue from a different environment, shows her great kindness (but nothing remotely like passion or love) then introduces her to the wider world, where he loses her. It has a family resemblance to the film Tati was making when he wrote the script—Mon Oncle tells the story of a hapless ne’er do well who attracts his nephew, shows him great kindness, and then loses him to his family, and is obliged to depart on the next plane out. But Tati admitted that he had rather lost his way with Mon Oncle, which has too much story—and ‘L’Illusonniste’ has even more. We have to assume that Tati dropped the script principally because, in addition to the loss of Etaix as the only plausible magician he could get to act the part, he realised in his slow but profound way that it was not a true or worthy “Tati No 4”. Of course Chomet is at liberty to adapt, invent, riff and take flight from a basic plotline that was granted him as a gift by the current owners of Jacques Tati’s estate. We could entertain ourselves imagining the steamy drama that D. H. Lawrence might have cooked up from the same ingredients, or to what degree Nabokov’s Lolita (almost exactly contemporary with the original script) is a variant on ‘L’Illusionniste’. (Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European down and out with undeniable charm, seduces an ingénue from a different environment, takes her away on a vast pan-American road trip and eventually loses her to a pervert more accomplished than he.) The great disappointment for me and I think for all viewers is that what Chomet does with the material is… well, nothing.
Sure, he does give us wonderful artwork of Bobino, The Golden Arrow, the Finsbury Park Empire, Kings Cross, The Royal Highlander, Oban, Mull, whisky and rain, he gives us a suicidal clown, a team of bouncing contortionists, a music-hall backstage and an unbearably narcissistic four-man pre-Beatles yéyé band, he gives us red shoes and une belle américaine and innumerably many other winks and nods to film history and the 1950s. But the story he tells is no more than the sketchily sentimental plotline of ‘L’Illusionniste’. It’s really very sad. All that artistry, all that effort, and all that money… for this?
The last and only truly comprehensible line of speech in the film is the moral of the tale: There is no such thing as magic. Ah, but there is! Only it is not to be found here. Had Tati actually made this film, who knows what magic he would have added? Seemingly overpowered by his respect for the original, Chomet has failed to recover the liveliness, the wit and the magic of Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003). The Illusionist (1) is a prodigiously beautiful but quite inconsequential misappropriation of an idea that Tati was probably wise to leave in his bottom drawer.
- The Illusionist is probably the wrong title for this movie in the USA and the UK, even though it is slated to appear under that name. It would be more appropriate to call it ‘The Conjuror’ or, even better, ‘The Magician’. Or else, in imitation of the Hollywood sequel to Les Vacances de M Hulot that Tati refused to make, ‘Mr Hulot Goes North-by-Northwest’.