The Best Movie Critic + review

The Illusionist

Hey gang, Ben here. This week I'm going to take a look at a few movies nominated for Oscars this year that I missed the first time around. First up, Sylvain Chomet's cynical but visually stunning The Illusionist, which is up for Best Animated Feature at this year's awards.

I can’t remember who remarked that you should be at least 40 before becoming a movie critic. If you try to write about movies any sooner than that, you can’t help but have huge blind spots in your mental cinema Rolodex. While I generally disagree with that sentiment, I’m going to prove that mystery quoter right today by exposing a huge blind spot in my movie viewing habits. I am a novice and am imbecile when it comes to French cinema. All of it. I could probably name the “great French films” I’ve seen on one hand. In fact, I will: The Rules of the Game, The 400 Blows, Breathless, Le Samourai, Les Diaboliques. I can’t think of anything else. I’m not sure where my aversion to popping a French movie in the DVD player came from. Sure, I’m Hollywood-centric, but I’ve gone through periods of obsession with German, British, Japanese, Chinese, Australian, and Korean movies. Could it perhaps be from my too early exposure to Breathless, when I was still a teenager? Because of Goddard and the French New Wave, from a young age I’ve associated the French with stuffy formal elitism and stifled against it. It doesn’t help that in my experience that grievance is often totally valid.

All of that to say I have never seen a Jacque Tati movie. Not a single one. Tati has been dead for years, but The Illusionist is based on his final screenplay. As much as I must consider The Illusionist in terms of it’s director Chamet's career I must also consider it in terms of Tati’s movies… I would imagine. As I mentioned, I’ve never seen one. Though I am painfully ill-equipped to review this movie, I’m going to do it anyway. I humbly submit myself to deserved criticism.

The Illusionist follows a magician resigned to smaller and smaller gigs as vaudeville dies a slow death, replaced by teenybopper, Beatlemania-esque rock and roll. Our magician finds himself bottom-barrel at a small town Irish pub, where he meets a young girl smitten with his tricks. She follows him when he leaves town, and they end up in Edinburgh, where she is exposed to the "keeping up with the Joneses" world of fashion and city living, and the magician tries in vain to make enough dough to support her expensive taste.

Like Chomet's 2003 revelation The Triplets of Belleville, the animation in The Illusionist astounds. Each character's design and movement have been painstakingly orchestrated. The magician - animated as if Tati himself was playing the part - moves unlike any human being I've ever seen, but a totally believable one. Many of the characters move as if they stepped out of a Ralph Bakshi movie, but where Bakshi's team animated over the top of real actors to achieve that effect, Chomet's team does it freehand. The Illusionist's Edinburgh is moody and atmospheric. I've never thought twice about the town before, but after this movie it appears one of the most winning locations on the planet. I almost don't want to go there for fear that it wouldn't live up to Chomet's vision.

Nevertheless, I can't say I enjoy The Illusionist. The world as Tati and Chomet envision it is fundamentally hopeless. Success and happiness are fleeting. We are naturally inclined to take advantage of those we supposedly love, whether consciously or not. Though the animation is inspiring, every frame of the Illusionist seethes with sadness, discontent, and world-weariness. For a less-than-90 minute movie, it’s exhausting. The movie is full of magical moments: the rabbit soup sequence, the acrobats working at the advertising firm. But the whimsy of these moments fades quickly as life drags on, slowly, painfully, against it’s will. It's sorta like what would happen if Toy Story ended with Buzz and Woody - unable to stand the thought of living as "just toys" - hanging themselves off the edge of Andy's bed.

The Illusionist is a legitimate statement, to be sure. It might even be true. I imagine The Illusionist is a fascinating coda to Tati’s career. However, is something this cynical, this weathered, this weary appropriate for a relatively new moviemaker like Chomet? The best animation often lights our imaginations to previously unobserved ways of seeing and feeling. The Illusionist suggests that the heartening epiphanies and moments of solace we experience are transient, and easily lost and forgotten. Tati’s story is not a parable, warning us to appreciate those moments more. It’s positively nihilistic about our chances for happiness in this world.

-Ben

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The Illusionist + review