Friday, January 21, 2011

The Illusionist (2010)

"The Illusionist," while still being one of the most depressing films I've ever seen, is a definite improvement on the intense scathing and hopelessness of animator Sylvain Chomet's last film "The Triplets of Belleville" (a film that lessens on repeat viewings). This one is still ripe with pessimistic observation, to be sure. It sees how the power of illusion fades as time goes on, as rock music and television surge and the only sort of magic anyone cares about is that which can be used to sell merchandise. But it seems as if Chomet has matured since his first work, as he's created a much more refined film, that happily refuses to clutter its narrative. Instead of punching you, this one takes smaller jabs, and is all the better for it. Maybe Chomet needed a Jacques Tati screenplay for this sudden growth, but who knows?

In its opening quarter, the film seems to be going down the wrong path. The Illusionist (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda), a real magician (in that he really can pull things from thin air on a day-to-day basis) goes from audience to audience, no one appreciating his work. (They're more impressed by a fictionalized version of the Beatles.) That's until he performs at a Scottish pub, where, despite a jukebox being installed, people seem to respond to the tricks. The person who does most of all is Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a poor waitress who secretly follows the Illusionist when he sets off for Edinburgh (when the film arrives there, it starts to step right).

The film centers its social/economical satire on Alice, as she becomes assimilated into the constantly upgrading culture foreign to her. The Illusionist gave her red shoes before, but now she wants the white shoes and the Cinderella-type dress in the storefront windows. The film goes full-on critical when it completes a rhyming shot of Alice, now all primped up in expensive finery, walking as a country girl who looks just like her looks on in admiration (Alice was in this role earlier on). The film also places the Illusionist and Alice (as well as the Illusionist's abrasive hat-rabbit) in a hotel alongside a ventriloquist, a clown, and a trio of acrobats (all, except maybe the acrobats, heading towards a downfall) to chart how the times are a-changin'. And, as per usual, greedy businessmen take money that's not theirs when it's left unattended.

Chomet is nowhere near as good of a filmmaker as he is a visual artist or composer (the animation and music are both frequently astounding). He gives more establishing shots of Edinburgh than you can count, so many that it feels like one a minute. The man also needs to work on his skills of cohesion. The scenes never really flow together, and the movie would be better off if they did. But critics go crazy over his works, so why change a single thing? "The Illusionist," though, definitely deserves a nomination for Best Animated Film, and I want to at some point see it again (when I'm in a good enough mood), which is a good sign for a movie. It's actually pretty interested in being sublime, and it's hard to be cynical in the face of that. B


Stephanie said...

Great review ... I love the last line. :-) This sounds like an interesting movie, even with its flaws. The satire doesn't sound very subtle; I'm not sure whether that's a bad thing.

Nick Duval said...

It's not exactly subtle (sort of detrimentally but not really), but the film makes it go down a little easier. My opinion is that while "Triplets of Belleville" smokes cigars, "The Illusionist" is more concerned with cigarettes: the bite is still there, just less prominently. Worth seeing, definitely.