The Illusionist

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 8, 2015

Really exquisite. It is more than a pleasure, it actually feels like a miracle to see Jacques Tati, to see Jaques Tati’s thematics—Tati’s compositions and spatial, durational complexities!—after all these years. (That impossible, inevitable rural car crash and that two motorcycle gag, which may well have been in the scenario, are the clearest examples among many.) M. Chomet and friends bring their own levels of rapture, especially manifest in the gorgeous painted backgrounds. The highlands/islands are stunning, as is Edinburgh, in a completely different register.  The watercolour effects are immeasurably helpful here.

The story, or the philosophy, is more problematical. The Illusionist is Tati’s Limelight. It’s more modern than Chaplin’s late career curio. Strangely, it is also more reactionary. Chaplin is looking back to a ridiculous degree, but he’s so confident, and so amazing, that the contradictions and inconsistencies just fade away. His character is morbid, but the bigger piece feels very healthy. Not so with this one.

The backstory is distressing; Tati’s unproduced script was a partial, deeply felt, still insufficient and ineffectual acknowledgment of an illicitly conceived and heartlessly abandoned child. Biography isn’t always relevant to a work of art, but the details really do have to be factored in here. The consequence is that Chomet’s whole concoction is simultaneously affecting and a bit awful. The melancholy is beautifully expressed, but it borders on the morbid, and even unattractive. Self-reproach edges into self-loathing, which has its own sentimentality, its own narcissism. The Illusionist is not just autobiographical, not simply self-flaying. But its world view is coloured and finally tainted by the implicit self view. “There are no magicians.” The musical hall was fading as the Brit-poppers (very funny) took over, but what about Parade?

Neurotical virtuosity. Admirable, but not necessarily, not completely likeable.