Tati’s The Illusionist: Being Real, or just Depressing?

Just as a brief, American frame of reference: think about what 101 Dalmations looks like. Now take out the dogs, put in an unsuccessful magician, replace Cruella de Ville with a sweet (yet egregiously ungrateful) Scottish girl, and take out any concept of that Disney ‘Magic is real’ B.S. Bleak enough for you? Good—it’s supposed to be.

Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati’s 2010 animated feature The Illusionist was shown last week as part of the Tournées Fest, an ongoing series of French films being screened in Decker Auditorium this month. The film follows Tatischeff, a magician who is driven out of the music halls of Paris by poor business, and then London by effeminate British rock bands. He resolves to stay on one of the rainy, but primitive and unexplored Scottish isles (which has only recently gained access to electricity), in the hopes that his act will gain better renown there. During his stay, he captures the imagination of a girl named Alice, who believes that he possesses genuine supernatural powers, and is wooed by his gift of new red shoes. She follows him to Edinburugh, and proceeds to be showered with gifts that Tatischeff can’t afford—having to take up other secret jobs in order to keep up the façade of “pulling them out of thin air”. Alice soon finds affection in a young, handsome young lad, and poor Tatischeff, upon discovering their love, hops the next train to wherever, leaving a note that reads: “Magicians don’t exist.”

A final shot of Tatischeff leaving on a train, then all the lights in the town magic shops, music halls and theaters slowly go out, as if to say “Your childhood dreams are dead”… and that’s the end. Yup. That’s it. No “Act III: Our-hero-comes-back-to-save-the-day” or “happy ending” stuff. Oh, and he lets his rabbit loose onto a gray, lonely hill in the middle of a thunderstorm. Oh, and when critics initially observed the film some saw it as an unsuccessful attempt by the screenwriter, Tati, to apologize to his abandoned, illegitimate daughter—I bet you never guessed that an animated film could get this depressing, did you?

But just because it’s an animated film doesn’t mean we always have to get whisked off to some fantasy land of happiness, talking animals, and musical numbers. That’s not always the reason I go to see a movie, anyway. Sometimes I want to see real characters, struggling with a real world. Tatischeff is a die-hard optimist, but he’s also a realist— someone who understands who he is, and what kind of trials he has to endure. And even in the face of all that, he still performs, and he still tries to win the girl’s heart, even if he knows his tricks will go on appreciated only for a little while longer.

Alice is a Cruella de Ville without meaning to be—she seems to be the only person who genuinely admires Tatischeff’s magic, and loves him for his kindness, and yet, what does she do? She gets lost in a new world, and is swept off her feet by it. She forgets Tatischeff, perhaps only acknowledging his affections as a daughter would her father, and goes off with a new guy who, really, looks more her age anyway. Her innocence and naivety only carry her so far, though. The betrayal is still there, sensed by the audience, even if Alice doesn’t realize it right away. She serves as a warning against such over-indulgence and blind wonder, and a perpetrator of one of the most commonly committed, and most human of all crimes: breaking the heart of those who care about you the most.

Check it out if you have the chance. Despite the overall bleak perspective of the film, Tati fits in a good measure of humor and satire…as in, almost every character feels like a satirized version of someone in real life (i.e. a recurring drunk Scotsman), so it’s not all bad. And watching a French film will make you feel smart— even if it is just a cartoon… it’s a cartoon with substance.