REVIEW: Sylvain Chomet Conjures a Toon-Deaf Illusionist
The big drag about modern animation is the perception -- which seems to be growing more prevalent rather than less -- that it's somehow better when it's "good for you." In the old days, anvils were dropped remorselessly on coyote heads and Popeye, under his breath, swore like a sailor (natch). Now we have Wall-E blinking out sad, cautionary tales about the horrors of environmental waste (or of simply getting too fat to leave your armchair), or wildly scripted tales, like those of Hayao Miyazaki, that follow the kind of noodly dream logic you might see in experimental film -- this is serious stuff, with heavy-duty art-gallery weight. Much of modern animation is technically very beautiful. But what if the story being told leaves you wanting? To say you don't like these so-called serious, not-just-for-kids animated movies has become something of a cutural offense, apparent proof of your coldness as a human being.
I know I'm supposed to like The Illusionist; I'm probably supposed to love it. But Sylvain Chomet's animated wisp of a tale -- based on a script by Jacques Tati, which Chomet adapted himself -- is a little too precious and a little too sour, without ever being particularly engaging or piercing. The animation itself is technically gorgeous, a class act all the way. But there's so little to be found in the faces of the characters, or even in the way their limbs move (much of it adopted, cleverly enough, from Tati's own physical style), that it's not clear what we're supposed to feel for them. The Illusionist is extremely sophisticated in its execution. But is that enough?
The movie opens in Paris in 1959: A gentleman who resembles a past-middle-age Tintin (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) is performing a not-so-successful magic act with a tubby white rabbit whose haunches, rather than his ears, are his distinguishing features. Presumably in search of a more appreciative, and more lucrative, audience, the illusionist treks first to London and then to rural Scotland, where he wows the locals at a small inn. During his stay there, he befriends a young chambermaid. He takes note of her disintegrating shoes and buys her a pair of new red ones; she makes sure his room is warm enough when she believes she sees falling snow outside (though it's really just a bunch of goose feathers wafting in the breeze, one of the movie's many gentle sight gags). Their relationship is warm and symbiotic, and at this point, the story seems fairly promising.
But when the illusionist leaves the town, the girl -- her name is Alice, and her voice belongs to Eilidh Rankin -- follows him. She boards the same ferry he does, but doesn't have a ticket; when the steward asks her for it, she points to the illusionist, who's somewhat surprised but who nevertheless opens his wallet. The two travel to Edinburgh and set themselves up in a modest hotel -- she takes the bedroom, he sleeps on the couch. When they go out walking, she points out items in the shop windows -- a coat, a pair of high-heeled shoes -- and makes her desire for them clear. Striving to please her, he buys them, though it means he has to take a secret nighttime job in a garage to pay for such luxuries. Meanwhile, she tidies the room and cooks, or purchases flowers as a way of adding the proverbial woman's touch. If she seems grasping, she's also a poor country girl newly arrived in the city -- it's hard to blame her for wanting things.
But as the story moves forward, in tiny elf steps, it becomes harder to understand who these characters are or what, exactly, they want from each other. Alice becomes increasingly sophisticated and increasingly opaque -- she begins wearing her hair up and clattering around town in those very fancy high heels, clearly wanting a more luxurious life than this modest stage performer can give her. The illusionist begins to seem tortured by Alice's indifference -- we can assume he's in love with her, though it's painfully unrequited. He attempts to break away, only to humiliate himself; she reappears in his life, but she seems to be interested in him only for the things he can give her. Or maybe she does sort of like him -- it's hard to tell from her unreadable, almond-shaped eyes. (The movie is virtually wordless, except for some muttering in French and Gaelic.)
The Illusionist is clearly designed to be a bittersweet story about an old man in love with a young girl -- I think. And that's a fine enough armature for a story. But Chomet seems to care less about these characters' feelings than he does about creating clever visual gimmicks. Some of those gimmicks are wonderful: At their hotel, the illusionist and Alice meet some fellow guests, a troupe of acrobats who bounce up and down the building's winding staircase, chanting along as they hop: "Op! Op! Op!" Later, they help the illusionist get a gig with an advertising agency: Their job is to touch up the paint on giant billboards, and they do so by wielding paintbrushes as they swing back and forth on a trapeze, dabbing paint onto the canvas with astonishing accuracy.
But beyond those witty little touches, there's always a sense that Chomet is straining too hard. I enjoyed some of the outright oddness of his 2003 Triplets of Belleville (particularly that fat, scraggly dog). The Illusionist may be even prettier to look at: Chomet's palette is sophisticated and subtle, and his views of city life -- particularly late-'50s Edinburgh -- capture the right balance of small-city sophistication and griminess. And the illusionist, designed to be a Tati stand-in, does carry echoes of his real-life counterpart: He strides confidently on his longish limbs, even when he's about to bumble into disaster.
But we rarely know what he's thinking or feeling. Does he feel used by Alice, or is he simply glad to be around her? And while she seems content to look after him, is she really on the lookout for a younger, richer swain? Maybe those questions don't matter, but nonetheless I kept squinting at The Illusionist, marveling at its beauty and yet wondering why I couldn't bring myself to care much about it. It could be that Tati's humor largely eludes me: So much of it seems designed to elicit a hearty "O-ho!" -- which isn't the same as actually laughing.
Even so, The Illusionist shifts gears too abruptly into an aggressively dour ending. It's as if the movie's grudgingly fanciful quality must come with a punishment. The Illusionist is really about the death of imagination and the demise of the old ways -- not just vaudeville, but also, presumably, hand-drawn animation. It wouldn't be enough just to be able to look at these characters, at these lovely moving drawings, and enjoy them. They need to be used in the service of something greater, at the expense of their own cartoon souls.