Review: The Illusionist

An 80-minute, hand-drawn animated French film without dialogue and with one of the most depressing finale acts ever committed to celluloid: this is The Illusionist. It’s also some sort of divine masterpiece. French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) has adapted an unproduced Jacques Tati (the iconic late French comedian behind Mon Oncle and Playtime) screenplay from 1956 into this vividly realised, boutique piece of old-fashioned nostalgia. First seen at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival, this timeless film is finally receiving a local release and it is one of the finest works seen on our screens this year.

Set initially in Paris, then London, the Scottish highlands and finally the gorgeously rendered city of Edinburgh, Chomet’s film follows an elderly illusionist – an animated version of Tati’s famed Mr Hulot character – as he goes from gig to gig, slowly realising that his dedicated art is dying at the hands of wildly coiffed rock musicians performing to gaggles of screaming fans. Along the way he is joined by an impressionable young girl who innocently uses the magician to escape her humdrum small town life of mopping floors and scrubbing bars, but who eventually becomes selfish and forces the kind gentleman into taking menial jobs to pay for her increasing cosmopolitan life.

The themes found here are very much in the same vein as Tati’s films of the 1950s and ‘60s. The idea that the modern life is not just encroaching upon a golden era, but also essentially snuffing it out entirely and that we will be worse off, more cynical and jaded, because of it. The extra back story behind The Illusionist, however, is far bigger as Tati’s own daughter, ignored in her youth by her own father, provided the catalyst for this screenplay. What it says about their relationship when the girl is seen as a spoiled brat who drains her father figure’s zest for life is up to you to decipher.

The Illusionist and Alice walk the streets of Edinburgh

The Illusionist is such a beautiful film from beginning to end. Edinburgh has never been this lovingly filmed, even if it is animation. The textures he creates here are stunning, with his trademark exaggerated and flamboyant character designs proving a comical counterpoint to the film’s darker themes. The music score, from Chomet, is one of the greatest achievements I can recall. So beautiful in its mix of piano, flutes, strings and even bagpipes; it aches of melancholia. The film’s final scenes are the stuff that broken hearts are made of, and the symphony of sniffles after the screening I attended is testament to its power. Lovingly created by a master of animation, The Illusionist provides more beauty in its brief 80 minutes than most films can muster in double. Simply superb.

The Illusionist is released 28 July in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Thanks to the lovely people at Potential Films we have five in-season, double passes for The Illusionist to give away to Australian readers. To go into the draw email your name and postal address to by July 29th. Please remember to put ‘The Illusionist’ in the title of the email.

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