The Illusionist: Chomet’s Magical Animated Masterpiece

The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet

Following our Triplets of Belleville review, we’re taking a look at Sylvain Chomet’s masterpiece—it’s the Illusionist (not to be mistaken with the 2006 film starring Ed Norton).

Non, L’Illusionniste is French director Chomet’s artistic and storytelling triumph, merging bittersweet poignancy with a wry, subtle sense of slapstick humour.

Largely set in Edinburgh, the film begins in Paris, 1959, where the emergence of rock ‘n roll is forcing traditional theatre acts to the sidelines.

Finding himself increasingly unemployable, the illusionist makes a break for other nations to show off his magical skills, which leads him to make a kind gesture which sets up a young lady for life.

Chomet’s Masterpiece in The Illusionist

Okay, so the film starts out in Paris with our eponymous character working as an illusionist (or magician, if you will) whose livelihood is on the ropes due to new crazes such as hip and rad rock ‘n roll music.

Magic tricks aren’t as exciting as those emerging rock bands the ladies like to scream at, so he’s forced into working before dwindling audiences for little pay.

Fed up of all that, he makes the trip to Scotland to pursue work opportunities.

It’s at this point the exceptional animation starts to really come to life, which is really what Chomet’s films are about—the glowing atmospherics and charm matched by that remarkably distinctive artistic style.

In the brief clip below, you can watch his journey on a train (in a scene where nothing really happens—just behold the visual glory!).

It’s a match for two of Spirited Away‘s stunning train scenes, which have stuck with me over the years as they instill moments of quietude in an otherwise often hectic film.

The Illusionist, however, never loses itself in hedonism—its relaxed paced is maintained throughout, which really helps to emphasise the more comical moments as they appear as ridiculous as they should be.

Our man’s efforts in Scotland initially meet with interest from enthusiastic locals, whilst the minimal use of dialogue allows the viewer to really settle into the visual experience.

It’s at this point in the film we realised what makes Chomet’s animation stand out so much—it’s how he exaggerates (caricatures, almost) human behaviour for comical effect. It’s charming.

The script is, in fact, based on French actor and screenwriter Jacques Tati’s (1907-1982).

It was a work of his which wasn’t produced, although Tati’s other films such as Playtime (1967) are considered cinema classics.

He’s thought of as a comedic genius in the film buff community, so the Illusionist, upon its release, was thought of as a posthumous return to the screen for Tati.

Anyway, back to the plot! Whilst at a remote village in Scotland, he befriends an impressionable young girl called Alice who genuinely believes he has real magic abilities.

She journeys with him to Edinburgh where the illusionist rents a flat and looks after the girl in a father/daughter relationship.

He meets up with similar talents from the performance arts community and, whilst relatively prosperous at first, their luck soon changes and it is apparent they are fading acts with no livelihood ahead of them.

Forced to take a second job as a mechanic to keep the magical facade running for Alice, up until his lowest ebb he’s able to dedicate his seemingly worthless existence to ensuring she can have a happy future.

It’s a brilliant film—no other way of putting it. It’s moving, funny, utterly spectacular on the aesthetic front.

And it’s a brilliant demonstration of how to tell an engaging story despite the dialogue consisting largely of comical grunts and perplexed expressions.

It’s also fair to say Edinburgh comes off looking marvellous in Chomet’s film.

As it did in crazy-fest T2 Trainspotting in 2017. A magnificent place to visit, Chomet’s film is a calling card for you to go.

The city is famous for its cultural delights and scenic backdrops, which are all depicted with a glowing enthusiasm by Chomet in that characteristic style of his.


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