There’s one fundamental question that always has to be asked when the subject turns to great filmmakers’ “lost” scripts: why was the script lost? In the case of “The Illusionist,” a script written (but never filmed) by the great French director Jacques Tati, press notes tell us that the material “was far too serious a subject for his persona and he chose to make the classic ‘Playtime’ instead.” That’s another reason why you should never doubt the instincts of a master: “Playtime” is one of the greatest movie comedies ever made, while the new film of “The Illusionist,” adapted animated by the talented French cartoonist Sylvain Chomet, is a beautiful looking mess.
If that quote — which is actually from Chomet himself — in the press notes is true, then Tati sensed that his Monsieur Hulot character, the genial bumbler he played in his films, was all wrong for “The Illusionist.” And another quote from Chomet states that “because the character of The Illusionist is definitely not another Monsieur Hulot, Sophie Tatischeff [Tati’s daughter and executor of his estate] didn’t want to see any of that character’s familiar trademarks dramatized by another actor.” So instead Chomet’s “Illusionist” casts an animated version of Hulot — or at least Tati — in the lead role of Tatischeff, a touring magician eking out a meager living as the show business landscape changes all around him.
From a technical perspective, Chomet’s work is uncanny: he has created an utterly believable cartoon Tati. HIs movements, gestures, and posture are so perfect, you might think that Chomet had managed to motion capture Tati before he’d passed away. But Chomet only captures the form of Tati without much of the function. I have to agree with Tati’s initial assessment of his own work: Hulot doesn’t really belong in this story, and his presence in “The Illusionist” makes it feel like a weak movie by Tati instead of a solid one by Chomet.
The primary relationship in the film is between Tatischeff and a naive young girl named Alice, who works as a barmaid in a tiny Scottish village. Increasingly out of place in music halls, where rock and roll bands are all the rage and sleight-of-hand gags are totally passé, the Illusionist embarks on a tour in search of more appreciative audiences. Alice is certainly that; she actually believes Tatischeff’s illusions are genuine magic. Enchanted, she follows him to his next gig in Edinburgh where she learns about the world while Tatischeff tries to satisfy her desires by “magically” giving her all of her heart’s desires (while secretly working many jobs to afford her appetites).
The best scenes in the film are the early ones, where the Illusionist watches helplessly as rock and roll destroys his livelihood. In these scenes Tatischeff doesn’t represent Tati; he represents Chomet, the 2D cel animator in a world increasingly overrun by 3D and computer generated imagery. And just as he did in the enchanting “Triplets of Belleville,” Chomet makes a compelling case for classical cel animation as an artform that’s still capable of producing uniquely gorgeous imagery. But he loses me when Tatischeff finds Alice. Their relationship is intended to play as bittersweet and whimsical, but mostly he seems sad and she seems dumb, and even a little cruel.
Tati was no stranger to comedies with tragic dimensions. But his comedies were still funny, sometimes hysterically so. “The Illusionist” is more cute than hilarious, and watching Tati in it I kept waiting for him stop simply resembling the director I love and start delighting me as he does in his own films. Maybe that was an unreasonable expectation. But I have to think if Tati saw “The Illusionist,” he’d wonder the same thing.
“The Illusionst” opens in limited release on December 25.