The show goes on
Oscar-nominee lives up to standard set with The Triplets of Belleville
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is an animated version of a previously unproduced screenplay by the late, great Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), and it’s done in the same rollickingly nuanced style as Chomet’s previous triumph, the delightful and masterly The Triplets of Belleville.
Chomet once again creates a semimythical cartoon world, part elegy and part slapstick farce, and does so in a way that keeps the faith with Tati’s distinctive wry humor and offbeat sense of comedy. The rambunctious homages to the movies and miscellaneous entertainments of another era seem a natural extension of Triplets, but the wry sight gags and shaggy-dog clowning are exquisitely attuned to the genius and spirit of Tati.
The title character of this little extravaganza is a Hulot/Tati lookalike, a French magician working the music-hall circuit in the waning days of vaudeville—with rock ’n’ roll, the movies and TV taking over the entertainment scene. The magician takes an adoring fan, a young housemaid, under his wing and, with a kind of avuncular calm, ushers her toward a Cinderella-like transformation into a gamine with a touch of Audrey Hepburn-style elegance.
Like the aged triplets of Chomet’s previous film, the Hulot-like magician is a kind of ebullient sad sack, a ramshackle sage full of antic resourcefulness. And as in Tati and Chomet alike, he shuttles back and forth between centrality and marginality.
That is to say he’s a crucial character, but part of the point is that he’s also intermittently marginal to the film’s passing parade. And that parade, with its serendipitous moments of comedy, romance, and farcical pathos, is really the main show in this particular mode of comic vision.
Other denizens of this sweetly contemplative frolic include the magician’s rather fractious rabbit, an impossibly skinny chanteuse, a roistering Scotsman, some billboard-painting acrobats and a frantically hyperactive rock group called The Britoons. The film’s chief setting is Edinburgh (Chomet’s residence in recent years), which in this case looks a lot like Paris’ Montmartre (as did the New York of Triplets).
Two other Tati connections: The movie that the magician glimpses by chance is Tati’s second Hulot film, Mon Oncle; and the magician in billed in music halls as “Taticheff,” which is the last name that Tati was born with.