The Illusionist (2010)

27 01 2011

Director-actor Jacques Tati worked with real space, real bodies, and real physical objects. Even the invented city of his Playtime was real. Tati built it out of tangible materials. His visual jokes had interminable ramifications. Every movement meant a constellation of tiny mannerisms making up the overall gag. Take any funny scene from Playtime, like Monsieur Hulot discovering a noisy seat, or the gradual destruction of a restaurant, or a family grouped around a television seen through a window that doubles as a shopping display for modern banality. These jokes can be fragmented into hundreds of tiny movements, a moment-to-moment comic texture, because real bodies have the gift of spontaneity, inserting creativity into each microsecond.

Animated movement, unless it is motion-captured, cannot replicate this amount of detail. Nor does it want to. Animated movement is always a proclamation, a statement of values. In The Illusionist, a new film by Silvain Chomet based on an unfilmed script by Tati written during the 1950s, a young Scottish ingenue repeatedly and tenderly helps her heel into her shoe with her index finger. This quotidian habit would already be miraculous if simply captured by a camera. For a director to halt his or her film to contemplate such a tiny moment already says something: that life is comprised of meaningless yet profound gestures. But for a director to not just contemplate, but lovingly draw and animate these gestures, that is a call to arms.

To animate is to bring to life, frame by frame, pencil stroke by pencil stroke. Once animated, the everyday detail becomes immense. It is now a carefully reconstructed event. The prosaic is portrayed with a care that imbues it with grandeur. It is not caught by a camera in an accidental episode of curious observation. The movement is not discovered. Animated quotidian details, animated mannerisms: these are planned in advance and executed with exactitude. They are thought out and then drawn, piece by piece, until the entire movement is completed. Moreover, the animated quotidian detail is remembered. It is not a surprise. The artist does not find the detail, as he or she might while filming a live-action feature. Rather, the detail is already in the mind of the artist. It lives first as a recollection, then as animated evidence of that recollection.

To animate the quotidian is to perform remembrance. The artist must dive into his or her memory to extract that which he or she understands as quotidian, in order to then display the results on-screen. Granted, this can happen in a live-action feature as well. Movement is not always or even mostly captured by the camera accidentally. There is usually planning and forethought. Nevertheless, the animated quotidian detail is even less accidental. The artist must meticulously sketch out its itinerary across the frame, must recall and self-consciously rebuild the quotidian detail as such. With most live-action images, something will necessarily escape the creator, something on the frame will be extraneous to the intended image, because reality has too much detail to properly contain in an artist’s imagined preview of his finished work.

Animation, drawing: these activities are not exempt from accidents and discoveries. Artists can follow their guts, flow with their emotions, send their pencils careening through the page without inhibitions. But the sort of animation found in The Illusionist is very precise. This is not the colorful wildness of Norman McClaren’s Begone Dull Care or the scratchy, confusing, bustling, and disturbing beauty of Zdenko Gasparovic’s Satiemania. It is a meticulous, mostly hand-drawn evocation of Edinburgh during the fifties. The characters who pace through its streets are similarly exact — and similarly dated — evocations of Tati-esque physical comedy. The illusionist of the title, the traveling magician Tatischeff, is modeled with eerie accuracy on the late director-actor, from his walk, to his angry and alert poise: arms fastened to his tighs, stretched along the length of his body; hands shut in startled fury. There is no discovery in either location or subject. Instead, we have a period setting housing a necrophilic ode to a dead artist. Everything we see on-screen is reminiscent of things past. Comedy becomes a melancholy reverie. The Illusionist mourns for a time when its jokes were funny.

This is not the film that could have been, because the film that could have been would have simply been, while this one is the remembrance of a film that has been lost to time. It is the faded memory of an unknown cinemagoer, who has retained in his mind, despite the decades, the flickering remain of some secret screening that only he got to watch some fifty years ago. We will never see that lost film. What we have instead is this recalled residue. The Illusionist is a painful and lyrical portrayal of absence: the absence of real bodies; of Tati himself; of the fifties and its clothes, its dresses, and its traveling magicians.

The film dwells on loss and oblivion. Tatischeff is the last of a kind. His magic show is growing irrelevant amidst the shockwaves of rock and roll. His variety act colleagues are transforming into suicidal and depressing parodies of themselves. Meanwhile, the young ingenue who tags along with Tatischeff is soon enamored with and enraptured away by more stimulating company: a handsome young boy, as well as the fresh, consumerist, youthful culture that envelops them both. In the original script penned by Jacques Tati, the ingenue becomes disillusioned with the magician when the young boy reveals him as a phony whose tricks are beguiling deceptions. In the animated adaptation by Chomet, the magician is not exposed in such a way. Instead, he slowly and irreparably grows distant from the ingenue, not because he’s a liar, but because he’s old, outmoded, and boring. Tatischeff does make some mistakes, like neglecting the young girl due to work-related frustrations. Not everything that happens to him is inevitable. But even these frustrations are due to old age and passing time, afflictions outside his control.

Tatischeff is forced to downgrade his act. He leaves the theater stage for the denigrating spectacle of performing behind a shop-window, magically materializing clothing products for the consumption of intrigued pedestrians. Eventually, the ingenue abandons the old magician. He has not agreeably settled into the new era. His shop-window efforts serve as farcical evidence of his obsolescence. He cannot accept his irrelevance, or rather, his final acceptance is steeped in regret. It is a tragic, impotent acceptance.

Chomet does not allow The Illusionist too many animated liberties. Save for a curious dancing troupe, most of the characters move realistically. Tatischeff, as we have seen, is an animated double of the real Jacques Tati. Even the visual gags are mostly contained within the physical limits of a live-action film. Chomet is animating what could have been a film by Tati. But, of course, it could never have been.

In this, there is a hint of Pierre Menard: the Borges short story where a twentieth century French writer crafts a word-for-word remake of Don Quixote. Near the end of the short story, a curious phenomenon is remarked upon by the narrator: even though Menard’s Don Quixote is exactly the same as Cervantes’ original, they’re still radically different novels. “The contrasts in style are also vivid. The archaic style of Menard — a foreigner, after all — falls prey to a certain affectation. Not so with his precursor, who handles with ease the common Spanish of his time.” Despite the identical texts, the different contexts under which they were written produce deep shifts in meaning.

Now, Chomet has not made Playtime over again. He does not intend to wholesale copy Jacques Tati. His aims are closer to homage. And it is not merely the surrounding context of Chomet’s Scotland-based animation studio that alters the meaning of the work. The Illusionist has aesthetic quirks of its own which set it apart from Tati. It is animated, for starters, and Chomet’s eye for rural scenery and nostalgic cityscape is surely his own. Nonetheless, throughout The Illusionist, Chomet strives towards the Tati-esque: from the comic timing, to the sprints and plunges, to the clumsiness. Like a virus, the past infects every scene with quickly spreading sadness. Each gag is actually a comment on itself as a recreation of Tati-esque humor. Chomet does not riff on Tati in order to renovate old material. He is too respectful in his idolatry. The Illusionist treads on sacred ground. It exalts the divine memory of what is no longer with us: times past, cities past, decades past, comedians past, magicians past, the period setting, the animated spectre of Jacques Tati. Chomet establishes an unhurried pace. Each movement, mannerism, and gesture is an attempt to keep up with ghosts. There is no spontaneity, only disciplined mimicry. Characters speak in muffled voices, mumbles that fall into a void, as if every frame had a black hole in it, sucking all nearby spoken sound into its silence. Animated bodies miming underwater: unreal, distant, recalled, dead, stuffed.

Chomet animates Tati with veneration, and not just Tati, but also his time period and the variety act circuit that birthed his artistic rise. It is a sickly homage. It yearns to bring the dead back to life, but it knows its wishes are impossible. The Illusionist feels rehearsed and somber, like a ritualistic dance carried through by performers who no longer believe in its spiritual potential. It is less a whimsical tragicomedy and more a bittersweet tango. With the tango, all tragedy is irreparable. It is fuel for self-conscious lament ruing the futility of it all. Tango is the music of failure. The Illusionist deals with its failure to revive the man who inspired it. In a sense, it deals with its failure to revive itself as the film it could have been, had it been made when its script was written. What it is, finally, is a morose denunciation of just how impossible it would be to actually be that potential film after fifty years, after everything and everyone that moves inside its frames has passed away.

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