The Illusionist (2010)

Rated PG. Our Ratings: V-9 ;L -1; S/N –1. Running time: 1 hour 20 min.

Two are better than one, because they have a
good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will
lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and
falls and does not have another to help. Again, if
two lie together, they keep warm; but how can
one keep warm alone? And though one might
prevail against another, two will withstand one.
A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Proverbs 4:9-12

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
Philippians 2:4-7

Tatischeff, Alice, and the pesky rabbit in their Edinborough lodgings.

2010 Sony Picture Classics

This animated tale of the relationship between an aging magician and a young person is somewhat remi niscent of the wonderful Michael Caine film Is Anybody There?, though much more bittersweet. Sylvain Chromet, who graced us with The Triplets of Belleville, has adapted a script written over 50 years ago by the great French comedian Jacques Tati but never produced. Indeed, this film begins in 1959 Paris, its hero is named Tatischeff (Tati’s real name), and there is even a scene in which Tatischeff attends a screening of Tati’s film Mon Uncle, one of Tati’s films featuring his character Monsieur Hulot, whose costume also serves as the pattern for Tatischeff’s clothes, both of them sporting pants that stop around the ankles. Even the almost non-existent dialogue in the film is drawn from Tati’s work.

Tatischeff is an illusionist whose act is long outdated, so that in order to find work, he has to leave France. Much of it centering around an often rebellious rabbit, it never seems to occur to him to change or update his performance. In London he is overshadowed by a rock and roll band called The Britoons. They hog the stage while he waits impatiently to go on, and when they do finally leave, only an old woman and a child remain for the illusionist’s performance (and she has to be awakened by the child). Thus he is soon out of work again. Traveling to the north of Scotland (and how gorgeous are the painted scenes of trains, mountains, and ships—no need for any 3-D tricks here!), he is well received at a pub where he completely captivates young Alice, the apparently orphaned girl who cleans up at the tavern. However, when a jukebox is brought out to the delight of the customers, it becomes evident that even here the illusionist is being replaced by modernity. He packs up and leaves, but not alone this time. The enchanted little girl, believing that he is a worker of real magic, insists on accompanying him.

They wind up in Edinburgh, a wonderfully drawn Edinburgh at that. (There is an impressively swirling, panoramic shot that transports us around and over the city, as if photographed from a helicopter!) The illusionist finds work at a local theater, but the old act fares but a little better before lack of public response catches up with him again. Alice keeps house and cooks, and loves window gazing in the city shops. Unaware of how his dwindling popularity provides so little money, she points out a coat and, later, a pair of shoes, she would love to have. Although they can ill afford them, he buys them and presents them to her back at their small apartment. Desperate for money, he tries working on cars at a garage, but an amusing but sad sequence shows he has no talent as a mechanic, or even washing a car. He is reduced to the indignity of doing conjuring tricks with women’s underwear and such in the department store window to draw a crowd of potential customers.

Tatischeff is attached to Alice, and she to him, but one day something that happens that will change their relationship forever. Alice, catching sight of a handsome young neighbor man, begins to go out with him. Tatischeff believes that he now has a rival for her affections. He also realizes that she must grow beyond her childish belief in his magic, and so he takes a step that is irrevocable, one somewhat similar to the one that the real Tati took decades before when he was a young man, and which won him the opprobrium of his fellow performers. This is a film that delights the eye with its beautiful art, makes us laugh a bit with the antics of its protagonists, and challenges us to wonder about the hidden recesses of the (wounded) human heart.

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers below.

1. Tatischeff has to keep moving to find new venues for his act. What does he seem to lack that might help him “move with the times” ? In the 1930s North America vaudeville gave way to movies and radio, so what did many vaudevillians do? What does Alice apparently see in Tatischeff that draws her to him? What apparently has been her history?

2. How does she stir the kindness that is within him? Indeed, how do they help each other in their companionship? How are both of them outsiders?

3. In their hotel what other outsiders do we see? How do these performers cope—for instance, the acrobats are reduced to doing what? And what would have happened to one of them done had not Alice been kind enough to bring him a bowl of soup? From what you see in the pawnshop window, are these performers any more successful than Tatischeff?

4. How does Tatischeff “empty” himself for Alice’s sake. Why do you think that he does not tell the girl about his various jobs? Perhaps to keep alive her illusions about him?

5. What do you think of his final decision and of the note that he leaves her? Do you think there might have been a touch of jealously and resentment that she has found someone closer to her age to give her heart to?

6. Could there have been a better way to free the girl of her illusions? What do you think will happen to the two?

7. Mention was made above of the fact that Jacques Tati did something similar when he was a young man: this was the abandonment of his daughter, and later, his failure to help her when she was in great need. For those curious about what lies behind this film go to imdb.com, type in the film title, and then scroll down to the “External Reviews” link to read Roger Ebert’s review in which he gives the link to a long letter about Jacques Tati and daughter from Jacques Tati’s grandson Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald.