Jacques Tati, like many other filmmakers, had projects that never got off the ground. He wrote a script title The Illusionist as one of those projects, dying without ever getting beyond the script stage. The director and animator Sylvain Chomet got his hands on it and decided that it spoke to him personally, especially the core idea of an older, traveling showman trying to connect with a younger woman in a fatherly way that either was meant as an apology to Tati’s legitimate daughter (Sophie Tatischeff) for his time away from her or his illegitimate daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel whom he abandoned as a baby. Either way, I felt like this was something to discover after watching Tati’s work as a director, feeling like it probably fit in with his filmography to a certain degree. It ended up being only partly true.
An aging magician modeled off Tati and named Tatischeff has to leave Paris because he cannot get work there anymore and goes to England. Finding London too modern in taste for his more antique form of entertainment, he heads north to Scotland where he encounters a young woman named Alice who becomes captivated by his illusions to the point that she believes that magic is real. He takes some pity on her, buys her a nice pair of red buckled shoes to replace her ratty brown ones, and leaves the town, his engagement being finished and in need of finding a new venue. Alice follows him, packing up her things in a single suitcase and buying a ticket on the ferry to the Scottish mainland along with him. He takes her under his wing, providing for her when he can. However, since he’s no longer just a loner only in need of his next meal, he settles down more firmly than before, taking up a single bedroom hotel room (he sleeps on the couch) and sharing it with the young girl.
What follows is a coming of age story on Alice’s side of things and, to some degree, on Tatischeff’s side as well. Hers is more obvious and straightforward, with her gaining more and more adult things from Tatischeff (first from his few public performances and then from pawning off certain things of his) while also gaining the attentions of a young man. He, on the other hand, has to find ways to provide for her. When his act refuses to take off, like always, he turns to finding other work. First is a stint in a garage as a nightman. This sequence represents what was lost by not having Tati directly involved in the production (he was dead, so Chomet only gets so much blame for not dabbling in the dark arts to revive the deceased Tati).
Tati spent a very long time making his individual films. The production for PlayTime went for several years, and that wasn’t because he was strictly following a script. He was in the space, finding gags. He worked best when he was given the time, power, and money to find those gags during production. It was how he worked. What Chomet was working with here was, effectively, an outline that Tati, had he made the film, would have built a series of gags off of to find the humor. However, Chomet isn’t that comic genius, so the comic bits end up being less than enthralling. As the garageman, Tati receives a rich, drunk customer who demands that Tati clean his clean car before disappearing into the night. Tati accidentally gets some oil on the door, drives it around in the rain to get it clean, and then gets fired by his boss because he wasn’t supposed to drive around client cars. It’s…less than amusing. It’s sort of cute in a way, but no more. I can imagine Tati given a few weeks to film the scene finding charmingly befuddling ways for Tati to find the solution to his problems.
Another thing with the film is how deeply sentimental it is. I do not criticize the film for this, mind you. It’s merely an observation. This is a deeply sad film. It’s a film about lost opportunities, the ending of childhood and dreams. It has certain Tati staples like a jukebox appearing in the Scottish pub to replace Tatischeff when he’s done with his act, the simple wonders of the old world being replaced by the more mechanical and less magical wonders of the new. However, it has a decidedly different spirit to it. There was sentimentality in Tati’s film (the waiter in PlayTime is a wonderful example), but they were more at the edges and less the point. The point here in The Illusionist is more definitely sad. I only bring it up because this is the largest break (aside from the less than enthralling comedy) from how Tati made his films. This is an homage to Tati, not a lost film of his or anything.
I don’t connect with the sentimentality all that much, though. I think it may have to do with the approach to dialogue meant to replicate Tati’s approach: minimal. It has a different effect in Tati’s work, effectively making the films silent films and putting the focus on the visual gags. Here, it seems to create a distance to the characters in my mind. The concept is more complex, the bonding of father and daughter figures followed by their dissolving relationship along with Tatischeff’s insistence that magic isn’t real in the end, and I think a more immediate approach to the characters would have served the story well. That’s not to say it’s a dud emotionally. It was sweetly sad, but I felt like there was still this distance that implied that I was expected to feel more.
The comedy is never quite funny, and the characters are too distant for drama. However, outside of that, it’s a nice little movie. The visual style is distinctive, capturing the physical mannerisms of Tati really well (there’s even a fairly daring moment when Tatischeff walks into a theater playing Mon Oncle, and we get a good, solid look at Tati himself alongside his animated counterpart). It’s sweet, just never quite emotionally affecting.