To many, the films of Jacques Tati are the last of the great silent comedies – albeit with a bit of sound thrown in to the mix. Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Tati’s style is based on visual gags and physical humour set to a minimal storyline. He walks as if peering over a ledge about to topple over – the progenitor to John Cleese and his Ministry of Silly Walks in Monty Python – bumbling from one intricate set-piece to the next, each one serving as a masterclass in concept, timing and execution, with the use of props and camera positioning complemented by the addition of amusing audio gags. The apparent simplicity of the structure of his films and deadpan delivery is deceptive – Tati’s films are meticulously crafted and imbued with subtle thematic subtexts (the quaint provincialism of Jour de fête, the modernity of Mon Oncle) which more than compensates for the threadbare plots and minimalistic use of dialogue.
L’illusionniste is based on an unproduced, semi-autobiographical script that Tati wrote in 1956. Directed by Sylvain Chomet, who made the critically acclaimed Belleville Rendez-vous, a story about a dedicated Tour de France cyclist who gets kidnapped by gangsters and used for an absurd gambling scam, L’illusionniste does an effective job of capturing the charm and pacing of Tati’s films in animated form, with the personification of Tati himself reanimated in the central character, a magician who travels to Scotland and performs in a remote village on the edge of a loch, where a young girl, convinced he’s a real magician, decides to accompany him to Edinburgh.
The film is undeniably gorgeous to look at. The animation has all the appeal of Belleville Rendez-vous, with a similarly surreal edge that compliments the caricature-like nature of the character design, and the magician himself looks and moves just like Jacques Tati. The environmental artwork is beautiful, brought to life with a subtle mix of weather effects and textural details. Edinburgh has never looked so good, a blend of water colour backdrops of rainsoaked alleys and bridges full of busy traffic and milling pedestrians, plus one incredible 3D sequence in which the camera swoops down from the surrounding countryside and weaves its way through the buildings before drifting up to take in a panoramic of the entire city.
While Belleville Rendez-vouz was farcical and fast-paced, L’illusionniste shows its roots in Tati and is consequently far more measured and, to some, laboured and slow. With the relative inaction and scenes which play out more like meditations on mood rather than on narrative progression, the film has come under criticism for dragging somewhat. A more generous appraisal of this approach to pacing – the one I take – sees it as enhancing the atmosphere and creating a sense of place and time that the more frenetic pacing of films like Belleville Rendez-vouz tend to lose. It is believed that Tati wrote the screenplay by way of dealing with the shame he felt for abandoning his first daughter, and in this context the melancholic undercurrent which permeates the film and the delicate interaction between the magician and the girl make perfect sense – Tati’s fictional version of his reconcilliation with his long lost daughter. That’s not to say L’illusionniste isn’t funny, but the humour is closer to that of a sad-faced mime trapped in his imaginary box desperate to escape, or the suicidal clown who rents the hotel room above the magician in the film. It is this figure that perhaps Tati empathized with the most, a fitting motif for sadness beneath the smiles and his own feelings of regret.
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot