L’illusionniste (2010, Sylvain Chomet)
What is this activity I partake in? Popularly referred as ‘blogging,’ it has become one of the most widely used online forms of communication between people from different cities, provinces and countries. This blog is used to review movies, as many others are too. Have you really paid attention to how many of such blogs there exists? Hundreds, most likely thousands. There is even a Large Association of Movie Blogs to gather around the varying opinions of all these people who write gleefully on the internet. The persistent emergence of internet reviews written by regular movie goers has, throughout the past few years, supplanted the traditional movie review, that which is written by the trained cinema critic. We have all read, heard and listened to stories about newspapers firing their movie critics because few people pay attention to them anymore. Film criticism, true film criticism (not the ‘pretend’ variety Between the Seats practices) is dying breed of film discussion. Sylvain Chomet latest exercise in animated storytelling, L’Illusionniste, is equally concerned with such a phenomenon, specifically in the world of performance art.
Brought to life here is the bittersweet tale of an elderly magician, whose mastery of tricks and illusions is lost on almost all. He is obviously good at what he does, filling empty glasses with wine, making flowers crystallize out of thin air and such, but the world he lives in is changing. There exist totally new and different forms of entertainment which have captured the attention of the masses. There may have been a time when magic was a sought after manner to spend a lovely and memorable evening, but such a chapter is coming to a close. After his act at a Paris theatre club is given the axe, our tall, skinny protagonist ventures to remote towns in Scotland (for reasons unknown, but we can guess) where his career is given an all too brief, if appreciated, revival. His talents amuse and bewilder one girl in particular, Alice, who makes an ‘on the fly’ decision to accompany the elderly man as he continues to make the rounds of Scotland by heading to Edinburgh. Once there, they rent a tiny apartment, share some dinners and live a life. The magician still attempts to cram in some brief shows to earn money the only way he truly loves to while rapidly going through a series of other non-magic related jobs he is not especially good at. Alice, once enamoured by the old man’s charming trickery, slowly leans towards objects and activities that girls her age typically enjoy.
There is much to discuss about L’Illusionniste, for it is a film that works on a great many levels. Its story elements are multi-layered and engage the viewer in often amusing and sometimes provocative ways. Its overarching theme of performance art as practiced by a magician is an excellent plot and well told in its own right, but can be understood and applied to several other topical issues in our lives and around the world about how the times are constantly changing. Radio is not as popular as it used to be (heck, actively going to the movies is probably not as popular as it once was now that we have DVDs, movies airing every night on the tele and…other methods of acquiring films), factories operate with machines more than they do with human labour, buying local regardless of price has been relegated to second place behind buying cheaper from elsewhere, etc. People must constantly adapt to their surroundings. For good or ill, money makes the world go round, which in turn produced all of the changes mentioned above as well hundreds of others over the past decades. If what you do simply is not profitable, then you must adopt other tactics, other professions. Furthermore, everything about the illusionist seems out of place. He bows before people upon entering grocery stores, he dresses fancy no matter where he goes, he does his best to exude a sort of class which is under appreciated today, let alone the fact that his primary profession is no longer in demand. He is totally and unequivocally out of the past, a living member of a type of man in danger of complete extinction. His class may be seen as ‘high class’, but only so many years ago a lot of people presented themselves exactly as he does every day. A surface level evaluation of what the illusionist is living through would conclude that his job is now extinct. Truthfully, it is the man himself who is becoming extinct. A soon to be relic of a soon to be bygone era. In one of L’Illusionniste’s most poignant scenes, people observe the magicians performance from behind a glass window. The protagonist is in fact executing simple tricks for the sake of marketing lingerie and perfume for the store which has hired him. Under any other circumstance, the people most likely would not have paid attention to his art, and even in this case, the purpose is to buy materials totally unconcerned with the world of magic.
The immediate tragedy of the illusionist is his inability to discover something else he is good at to earn money. The only other thing he can still succeed at is caring for young Alice, herself at the delicate age where the gullibility of the child morphs into different attitudes associated with teenage-hood. Job related pressures come in between them, and while the film does not depict any blatant antagonism between the two (nor does this reviewer believe there was any), it becomes increasingly clear that there are changes in the relationship, subtle as they may be. As the story moves along, Alice looks more and more chic, the result of the illusionist’s spending whatever money he can afford to make her happy. Again, it is the belief of the author that the movie is not trying to say Alice’s only need for the protagonist is for his earnings, but the dynamic of the couple, in some very small ways, takes on another dimension.
One of the best Pixar films is Wall-E, where the filmmakers thought it pertinent to have the first third of the movie dialogue free. Images alone told the first section of the story and the results were impressive to say the least. L’illusionniste goes a step further by featuring almost no dialogue whatsoever for the entire running length. Characters speak in garbled, near-incomprehensible mumbles, and only on occasion do they utter something clearly (my personal favourite being when a tavern owner is impressed with the illusionist’s marketing poster and just cries ‘Poster!’ as he sticks it to a wall). Director Sylvain Chomet remains faithful to one of cinema’s most primal concepts: that is it a visual medium. Images, shadow, sunlight, character reactions, all these are more than enough to convey a vast array of thoughts and emotions. Words can be explicit, but a picture is worth a thousand words. L’Illusionniste very much takes this to heart, exemplifying how powerful imagery can be in film and how emotional the story is after all. The fact that the film succeeds in having the audience understand what it goes for without any serious dialogue sequences is a testament to the quality of the overall production, from the script all the way to the animation, which, by the way, is very pretty and intricately detailed.
L’Illusionniste withholds nothing regarding emotion. The lives of the two central characters have funny moments, just as they have sad moments. The personal journey the magician goes on is a trying one and does not necessarily promise a joyful conclusion. The world of the film, just like our real world, recognizes that the forces which encourage change, both good and disappointing, are difficult and oftentimes impossible to stop. For how long does one resist the change and attempt to carry with what one is comfortable doing? Conversely, when does one finally throw in the towel, if at all? These are questions of acceptance, acceptance of realities people take on with heavy hearts. It is a cruel world out there, but if one can make the most of it, the pill becomes a bit easier to swallow.
*If you are done reading this article, I would like to direct you to a review written by James Ewing, sometimes co-host of the Lambcast and writer at Cinema Sights. The importance of his article lies very much in his knowledge of the production's background. James is a Jacques Tati aficionado and eloquently writes about the connections between what transpires in L'Illusionniste and the life and directorial style of the French filmmaker, who penned the script of L'Illusionniste.