In 2003 The Triplets of Belleville, with its unlikely, irrepressibly feisty and combative, elderly heroines, took us by storm. Now, French animator and director Sylvain Chomet follows it up with his second feature-length film, The Illusionist (2010). Let me say at once, viewers who expect more of the fast-paced, anarchic rebelliousness of Triplets may go away disappointed. This is not a race to the finish, but a leisurely Sunday stroll. Based on a script by Jacques Tati (written as a letter to his daughter), this film shares the reflective, melancholic humour of Mon Oncle (1958) rather than the sprightliness of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953). The drawing style has evolved another notch towards the classic Franco-Belgian comic book style, with its irresistible combination of naivism and meticulous, pseudo-realist attention to correct historical and local detail – think Hergé and Tintin.
The title character, the music hall ‘illusionist’, is none other than Tati himself, here known by his real name, Tatischeff. It is 1959 and his old-fashioned, charmingly clumsy act is fast being superseded by rock’n’roll and television. Looking for work he moves from Paris, via London, to Edinburgh, where the main part of the film takes place (and where it was also made, despite the lack of a local tradition of animation). Along the way he takes a young (orphan?) girl, Alice, under his wing. They make a home for themselves in a dingy little boarding house – Little Joe Hotel – among other music hall artists down on their luck. Day by day Tatischeff’s audience dwindles, but he hides this fact from Alice who believes he is something of a real magician as he uses his final pennies to bring her home the presents she wants; new shoes, a fashionable coat. For a while, she too spreads some magic light in the life of the disillusioned illusionist through her youthful innocence.
If stylistically The Illusionist is in some ways a very different film from Triplets, it also continues to develop a similar theme. Triplets had a go at the destructive influence of modern capitalism on the world of sports, cycling in this case. The Illusionist does the same for the world of arts. When Tatischeff is finally let go from the Edinburgh music hall his agent finds him work for a PR agency, performing in shop windows to attract customers, a job he can stand only so long before chucking it all in, symbolically setting his fat little white rabbit loose and heading back home to France. (Coincidentally, Tati started out as a professional athlete – a rugby player – and then became a music hall mime.)
But the tone of the critique is also very different. It is perhaps a pure coincidence, but I can’t help noting that the shift in attitude also seems to mirror a shift in the political mood of the French left. The years of production and pre-production of Triplets coincided almost exactly with the years around 2000 when the global justice movement, in France known as altermondialisme, stood at its height. As Triplets took a swing at ‘US style’ neoliberalism and military aggression, José Bové went to prison (in 2002) for having ‘dismantled’ a McDonalds franchise (in 1999). The indomitable energy of the ladies from the Parisian working class neighbourhood of Belleville – whose inhabitants fought to the bitter end for the Paris Commune in 1871 – matched the belief that ‘another world is possible’ sometime soon.
Tatischeff’s loss of belief in his magic and the melancholic tone of The Illusionist, on the other hand, feel entirely appropriate for a time when radical energy seems to have given way to shell-shocked defeatism in the face of economic and ecological crises, interminable wars and neo-colonial racism.
‘There are no magicians’, Tatischeff writes on a note to Alice, when he leaves for Paris. It seems to me that the disillusionment of Tatischeff also stands in for the greater political disillusionments of the 20th and early 21st centuries, or at least that could be read into some of the thought-provoking details of the film: The impoverished artists in the hotel of ‘Little Joe’ as orphans of the dreams that were killed by ‘Little Joe’ Stalin. Tatischeff in desperation going to the pawnshop of ‘Brown & Blair’, where you can sell your last possessions at a discount rate once every dream has died. And still, this is not a cold or cynical film. For one kind of magic does still exist here, the possibility of kindness between strangers and orphans.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.