Jacques Tati was one of the most inspired comic writers, directors, and actors of the 20th century, though his sense of humor was so dry and subtle that his movies are often more brilliant than funny. The same can be said of the animated adaptation of Tati’s screenplay The Illusionist, in which director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets Of Bellville) follows the travails of a M. Hulot-like magician in the UK in the early ’60s, as his style of showbiz falls out of favor. The film is episodic, showing illusionist Tatischeff dealing with technical snafus, indifferent audiences, and a new breed of performers more suited to the faster pace and scientific wonders of the space age. Eventually, Tatischeff settles into an Edinburgh hotel for itinerant entertainers, and tries to find ways to keep his rent paid while plying his trade, lest he end up like his desperate, near-suicidal neighbors. While Tatischeff looks for work, Chomet and his team of animators at Studio Django tell his story in little setpieces, often built around magic tricks.
Those tricks don’t always translate to animation. Neither does Tati’s minimalist whimsy, honestly. But The Illusionist isn’t strictly by or about Tati. After the protagonist encounters a wide-eyed fan (reportedly based on one of Tati’s daughters, though there’s some controversy over which one), he works overtime to convince her he still has a little magic left, and the film tries to do the same, in scenes and images that pay direct and indirect homage to the likes of Jacques Demy, Federico Fellini, Max Ophüls, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and a whole generation of mid-20th-century filmmakers who explored their medium’s capacity for spellcasting.
Throughout, Chomet shows some healthy skepticism about that magic, and what it really means. The Illusionist is filled with pretenses both grand and petty, from a snowstorm that’s really a flurry of feathers to macho rock musicians who are secretly gay to the false promises of billboards and window displays. Then the story ends on a melancholy, ambiguous note, with disenchantment and new hope jumbled together. In the end, Tati and Chomet are saying something complex but true here, testifying to the necessity of fakery while acknowledging that illusions can be cruel. The result is one beautiful movie—and no less so for making a strong case that beauty is a lie.