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Non-Review Review: The Illusionist (2010)

It’s hard to fault The Illusionist on a technical level. The film is truly beautiful, not only capturing the beauty of its surroundings in wonderful animation, but also produced with a magical sense of artistry and genuine romanticism. Although one can readily spot the hints of CGI used to help realise director Sylvain Chomet’s vision, the animation feels remarkably and endearingly old-fashioned. The limited use of dialogue throughout adds a strange and ethereal (almost fairy tale) quality to the whole thing. Still, there’s something that feels a bit strange about the whole thing, as if the story – although trying to distract us with flair and bright colours and a clever wit – is a truly depressing saga. Some might suggest that it is “bittersweet”, but I couldn’t help but find the outer “sweetness”nothing but a superficial attempt to distract from a truly bitter core.

It's a kind of magic...

The Illusionist is based on a story written by mime Jacque Tati in 1956. It’s the story of an ageing magician who quickly finds himself being replaced by newer forms of entertainment – be it rock ‘n’ roll bands, film or television. He migrates from Paris to Scotland and tries to find a place in the world, discovering that people are no longer as easily impressed as they once were – the one kid who stays for his late-night performance (after the “Britoons” play a seemingly infinite number of encores) insists that he knows what the magician’s trick was. While in Scotland, he chances across a young lady who is convinced that his magic is real, a rather wonderful and noble sentiment, one that might just restore that illusionist’s faith in humanity…

… until the movie brutally subverts it. His young companion seems to expect him to “magic” up everything for her, from money to tickets to dresses to coats to shoes, seemingly unaware of the distinction between a stage magician and a wizard. What any other movie would treat as an endearing and enlightening relationship, the film brutally deconstructs, as the magician is forced to take any number of extra-curricular jobs in order to pay for his young friend’s seemingly endless wants. This is the central bitter disillusionment at the heart of the film, as the magician nearly kills himself in order to preserve the young lady’s absolute faith in his magical abilities.

Feeling blue?

There are two major problems with this. The first is the issue of characterisation. The animation is superb, and the decision to tell the story without dialogue is a wonderful artistic choice, but it also means that it’s harder than usual to get a glimpse into the minds of given characters – especially since the magician is a stage performer, so it’s a lot harder to distinguish whether his actions are mere theatricality or honest reflection. The work is great for the individual sequences, and there’s never any confusion about particular events, but it does create issues with characterisation over the course of the film.

So it’s up to the audience to deduce why the guy would hang around with such a needy and selfish young woman, who isn’t necessarily a bad person (just an oblivious one). One might argue that her faith in him makes him feel good about himself, but it’s hard to figure out where the line is drawn when it leads to the guy working multiple jobs that make him truly happy. Similarly, it’s hard to care about his young ward, who never seems wilfully malicious, but seems like the kind of person that never should have been taken to the “big city”because she’s clearly not ready for it.

Getting a hostel reception...

The second major problem is the fact that all the whimsy and style feels like a shallow attempt to distract from what’s essentially a nihilistic outlook.  The film works best when it embraces the tragedy of its lead, especially towards the end of the film, as the magician seems to increasingly observe that the world isn’t the one he used to know. However, the film’s sentimentality and wit seem like attempts to draw audience’s attention away from the rather troubling conclusions.

The result is a film that feels like the paradoxical “sad clown” (who, in fact, makes a small appearance). It seems hypocritical to dress up what’s essentially a rather bitter and angry moral in the bright colours of joy and happiness. Indeed, the story doesn’t seem so much “tragic” as it does “bitter”, with the ending essentially rendering everything we’ve seen completely pointless. Being entirely honest, I have no problem with a misanthropic film espousing a cynical and bitter outlooks, but it does seem pointless to dress that up in such nostalgic and beautiful terms.

Over the hills and far away...

It’s a damn shame, because it looks absolutely beautiful. The artistic style is nothing short of magical, and it’s astounding how much the animation can convey without a need for dialogue – we’re never stuck trying to figure out what exactly is happening (even if we occasionally struggle with “why”). The animation team appear to have done their research. Having visited Edinburgh once or twice, the animated depiction actually looks quite stunning. I’m convinced that I even visited that pawn shop, based on its location. The colours are rich and vibrant, and it truly looks amazing.

Still, it’s a shame that The Illusionist winds up looking so good, yet feeling so empty. All the ingredients for a great movie are here, but they just don’t come together. The movie’s sentimentality and nostalgia are at war with its own cynicism. The film seems so disingenuous in showing us magic while, at the same time, insisting that it doesn’t exist.

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2 Responses

  1. A beautiful production, the review is spot on.

    If you want to feel empty watch it.

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