If you had asked me exactly one year ago to guess what would be the common theme to 2010's two best animated pictures, I am almost completely certain that I would not have come up with "the fear of mortality". But there you have it: this summer we had Toy Story 3, which if you follow my reading is a grand metaphor for death and various theological conceptions of the afterlife, and even if you don't, there's still it's renowned incinerator climax, which features characters staring their own imminent demise in the face in a manner rather unexpected in a G-rated cartoon. And now (for Americans; the film premiered ages and ages ago), The Illusionist, a comedy about generational advance and the old falling way to the new; a film in which an aging entertainer realises slowly that there is nothing left for him. To push the death connection even further, it's being more or less billed as a film made from beyond the grave by French cinematic icon Jacques Tati, though that simplifies matters rather dreadfully.
The situation is this: sometime in the latter half of the 1950s, Tati wrote a screenplay about a music hall magician who falls in with a young woman, exploring themes close enough to 1958's Mon oncle that it seems clear enough, to me anyway, that the projects were percolating at the same time. Everyone agrees that the story was Tati's way of apologising to his daughter for being so constantly absent, though there's a great huge controversy over which of his daughters it was meant for: Sophie Tatischeff, his legitimate daughter and watchdog of his artistic legacy until her death in 2001, or Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, his illegitimate eldest child. The whole story is fascinating, sad stuff, but it's honestly beside the point, which is: shortly before her death, Sophie Tatischeff allowed animator Sylvain Chomet to have the script, and a decade later, having struggled for most of the years since his 2003 masterpiece The Triplets of Belleville to establish an animation studio, he finally completed the feature.
A lot of people have responded by treating The Illusionist as a seventh Tati feature, which simply isn't the case. It's Sylvain Chomet's film: one which takes its cues from Tati, which serves as a tribute to Tati's one-of-a-kind genius, which trades upon its audience's presumed knowledge of Tati's work to reach its full impact. But it's Sylvain Chomet's film. It was Chomet who made the absolutely crucial decision to relocate the action from Czechoslovakia to Edinburgh, Scotland, home of Chomet and Django Studios, which began and ended its life with this one project. The setting is no more incidental to the film than Vienna is to The Third Man or San Francisco is to Bullitt: the version of The Illusionist that made it to theaters would have been unrecognisably different if it took place in Eastern Europe. And it's Chomet's doing, obviously, that The Illusionist is animated:, thus significantly affecting the film's treatment of its subject from Tati's original notion for a live-action film. The story of a ramshackle magician, in live action, could not possibly be as magical itself as the same story given the patina of watercolor-style backgrounds and itchy character design that made Triplets one of the most visually original animated films in decades.
The movie opens in Paris, in 1959, with a meta-narrative flourish recalling Baz Luhrmann, as well as the cartoon-within-a-cartoon gambit that starts Triplets: we're watching the premiere of The Illusionist itself, and when a technical malfunction delays the show, the theater brings out Tatischeff the magician (his design based on Tati, as well as, obviously, his name; I have to assume it was different in the original script) to entertain us. We then, invisibly, move into the film itself, following Tatischeff from one worn-out venue to another, from France to England (where he finds his old-school tricks are no match for this new thing called rock & roll, embodied by the hilarious pastiche Billy Boy and the Britoons), and then to a village in Scotland, where his simple tricks enthrall the locals, and especially a girl named Alice, who sneaks along when Tatischeff continues on to Edinburgh, finding a room in a hotel catering to quirky music hall acts including a band of enthusiastic tumblers, a suicidal clown, and a grotesque little ventriloquist. Faced with the big city for the first time, Alice is wildly enthused by all the fashionable trappings of cosmopolitan womanhood, and Tatischeff, eager to indulge her, spends all of his money on shoes and coats, and finds that he has to work odd jobs in addition to his magic in order to support her.
The Illusionist is about many things that are all interlinked: but chiefly it is about the loss of innocence. There is Alice's move from wide-eyed girl who can be easily taken in by the smallest sleight-of-hand to a young woman, dressed in nice things, with a handsome man by her side; there is the shift in mass entertainment from the free-ranging silliness of the music hall to high-energy pop; there is Tatischeff's growing awareness that he is no longer a functional member of a society that has no interest in simple parlor tricks. Much of this is disguised by some sleight-of-hand on the part of Chomet himself: The Illusionist is first so uncompromisingly beautiful, and the skill with which the animators re-create Tati's rare breed of physical comedy is of such a level that much of the film plays entirely as comedy: despite hints around the edges that something sad is happening (we never lose sight of the fact that Tatischeff is racing toward unemployability), most of The Illusionist is actually quite funny, in the low-key, slow-moving manner of both Tati's classic films and Chomet's own Triplets (no surprise, given the received wisdom that Chomet's debut is already, basically, animated Tati). It's only at the end, when all of Tatischeff's ingenuity can no longer keep him moving forward, that the film kicks into tragedy with the sense, not that the film has been lying to us, but more of an "oh, right" feeling: this is exactly where things were going, but like Alice we were too pleased with letting the magician lie to our face.
The result is that one of the funniest movies of the year has just about the most heartbreaking finale of the year, and the turn from one to the other feels not only unforced, but absolutely necessary. This is largely because the entire arc of the piece simply makes sense: of course each event triggers the next event and so on, and it's quite obvious why Tatischeff would sacrifice so much of his energy and money to this one random girl who seems appreciative but not nearly as grateful as we'd expect, given what the very strong suggestion of the final moments. Tati himself could never have made this film, it would have been too cutting and personal: for it is, in essence, the story of how the act of being Jacques Tati is desperately tiring, leaving nothing inside for the man behind the persona.
But let me not leave on a sad note for as tragic as the film concludes, it is mostly a sweet and tender homage to a simpler way of living and a simpler pace of life, to the tiny things which were the very stuff of Tati's cinema, the sheer comic potential of ill-tempered and ludicrously cute rabbits. It is an autumnal film, and regretful; but Chomet finds the beauty in regret, and the humor, and his film is rich and good, a simply glorious work of animation (except for the odd bit of CGI that looks too smooth next to everything else; and of course it lacks the novelty of Triplets, though it's in no way "worse") married to an unfussy, plainspoken look into human feelings. It's not perfect, but it's so aching and warm and and silly and sorrowful that it doesn't need to be.