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Dir. Sylvain Chomet
Sony Pictures Classics
Format: DVD / Blu-Ray
Release Date: May 10, 2011
By Dave Cantor May 12, 2011

Almost everything about The Illusionist, an animated feature by Sylvain Chomet (the animator and director most famous for The Triplets of Belleville) and loosely based on writings by Jacques Tati, has worked against its success. First shown at Cannes during 2008, the production didn’t see widespread Stateside distribution until late last year. Even then, the film only played major markets, leaving huge swaths of the nation unfulfilled in terms of providing cartoon comedy’s aimed at adults.

Tati, though, hasn’t ever been a huge name in this country, his lineage stretching back to miming and clowning – Jean-Gaspard Deburau wasn’t ever this clever. The Marx Brothers were, but most of those guys spoke. Harpo, who unlike Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin transitioned from stage to silent film to talkies, ranks as Tati’s American cousin, but isn’t usually granted his proper place among comedic geniuses, or even his brothers. Sure, Groucho was quick witted, Chico was mischievous, and Zeppo…Well, Zeppo was family, and not too hard on the eyes, so they kept him around. It was Harpo’s combination of the absurd with his musical talents and habit of falling in love every five minutes that made his characters so relatable, even if he hasn’t become a transcendent figure in the same way as Groucho and his mustache. Watching the silent character enter the 1929 sound-picture The Coconauts finds Harpo showing up just in time to play some ill advised darts and jam on clarinet for a while. Chico’s piano playing might have received more of a spotlight, but who plays the harp as a pastime? Harpo didn’t need to verbalize punch-lines. He had the physical ability, not to mention an elastic face, necessary to get laughs. Endlessly lifting his leg and placing it in the arms of unaware woman might not seem humorous in a time when dick and fart jokes reign supreme (nothing against either), but there’s a sweetness inherent in Harpo’s shtick, those big round eyes and his wig hanging down just far enough to be funny.

Duck Soup, the Brother’s last film with its classic lineup, was released in 1933, 16 years before Tati would star in his first feature. Creating a silent character so deep into the sound era must have caused the writer, director, and actor some problems. Tati’s success on the stage, however, translated to the filmic arena. Never garnering the biggest box office results, his career was marked by persistence and perfection, sometimes spending his own money on features – constructing an entire office building for his final work, Trafic (1971). What transpires in Tati’s films – modernity, family and affection run amok – should be happening. The trappings of modern life are meant to improve how we live, not complicate matters. That’s how the man who created the bicycle riding Hulot saw things, at least. His films stretch from a time when cars were a novelty to when they were commonplace. Tati’s first film, 1949’s Jour de fête, even featured a bike riding mailman.

The Illusionist, based on an un-filmed script Tati left behind at the time of his death in 1982, careens towards the emotional even as the entire thing reeks of sadness and melancholy not commonly found in comedy. Supposedly a lament on the distant relationship Tati had with his daughter, the actor and writer crafted a narrative that pairs an aging magician, not one for the glitz and glamor of televised stars, with some lost child. The two, surely an unlikely match, wind up living together for a time in Scotland, as the performer’s forced to take on a succession of unrewarding gigs while watching the entertainment industry change dramatically – kinda like the shift from two wheels to four.

Opening for a fey-Brit Invasion band, Tatischeff – the thinly veiled Tati character – comes to the realization that his time’s past. The Illusionist’s broad topic reflects any number of Tati’s own works as his Hulot character stands in the middle of torrential change. Here, the magician does the same. He’s just joined by a rabbit and a runaway. Focusing on pleasing the stray he’s picked up – the girl, not the rabbit – Tatischeff winds up shuttling from one gig to the next, eventually spending so much time apart from the girl he’d grown fond of as to estrange the two, making the film’s conclusion unsurprising, but painful to watch all the same. Maybe there aren’t magician’s anymore. Maybe they weren’t ever real. But Chomet was able to distil the collected works of a film-world rarity during 80 minutes of animation – good thing The Illusionist wasn’t 3D.

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