When we were kids, my brother and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world to find out that we could rent movies at the public library. Though, it was less-than-awesome to learn that their film collection housed almost nothing made after 1988. But eventually, black-and-white wasn’t so hideous and subtitles weren’t such a nuisance, and we came to appreciate the classics, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the radio-based tales of Suspense, cheesy horror films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the quiet amusements of French filmmaker, Jaques Tati, who, in the 1950s, made a franchise of a happy-go-lucky character named Monsier Hulot.
This weekend, I made the pleasantly solo trip to the theater to see The Illusionist (not to be confused with the recent, similar named American film about magicians). It’s the latest animated feature from Triplettes of Belleville creator, Sylvian Chomet and tells the story of an unassuming, middle-aged illusionist (“magicians don’t exist”) who struggles to find audiences and keep his career afloat on stages around 1950s Europe. The Illusionist is, in some form, a revival of Mr. Hulot. He’s never explicitly referred to as such, but he has the same trademark clothes and mannerisms, minus the pipe, and in one scene, even stumbled upon a theater playing Mon O’ncle, one of Tati’s films centering around Hulot (you can some on Netflix’s instant viewing).
It was perfect material for Chomet who works in this sort of universal style where there is very little dialog (seriously, watch Triplettes of Belleville), with the exception of minor background speech or perhaps, singing. Nothing has to be redubbed or translated over. The action tells the story. That’s how Tati worked, too. He mastered it because, in addition to being a filmmaker, he was also a mime and knew how to manipulate gestures and reactions to get a point across. In a way it was kind of like Peter Seller’s character in Blake Edward’s comedy, The Party, except that Mr. Hulot was not quite as absent-minded. He was simply a pleasant doofus. And that was always the great thing about watching things like Mr. Hulot’s Holiday or Mon O’ncle.
But, The Illusionist removed that element, creating a somber tale of inescapable obsolescence. Although, Chomet suggests that more important part of the story is the relationship between the illusionist and the poor, young Scottish woman he befriends who is convinced that the magic he performs is real, an illusion he tries to maintain to make her happy. Chomet intended to make the film in a way that showed Tati’s own regret for not being able to spend enough time with his youngest daughter, Sophie, as he had worked frequently and traveled often for it.
But as things grow difficult for the man – even children are skeptical of his tricks – it’s hard to watch a rather gentle guy fall to the same fate as other entertainers around him. A clown becomes suicidal. A ventriloquist becomes penniless. Things are going to work out for the illusionist at least, right?!! We’re Americans after all! Trained to expect happy resolutions (because we don’t watch nearly enough foreign films to know better). Chomet ends the movie on such a sad tone that I was surprised to see no one wanted to leave when the end credits started rolling (you always have at least one or two who don’t care to comb through the names of people they’ve never heard of). It was as though they were waiting for the film to continue after this unfortunate break and resolve as they expected. Even as I got up and left as soon as the credits started, I wondered if I wasn’t privvy to some secret that there’d be a surprise treat for anyone that stayed around. That Hulot was doing alright, and that even the penniless vantriloquist might have landed on his feet.
But there was no secret.