The Illusionist

The Illusionist
  • Country of production: UK / France
  • Year: 2010
  • Certificate: PG
  • Director: Sylvain Chomet
  • Running time: 80 minutes

The Illusionist is a poignant animated feature from SYLVAIN CHOMET whose last full-length film, Belleville Rendez-vous, aka The Triplets of Belleville (2003) earned him two Oscar nominations. It is ‘exquisite and heart-rendingly affecting' (Trevor Johnston, Time Out), the story of an ageing conjuror in the dying days of variety entertainment at the end of the 1950s, when TV and rock'n'roll were taking over. 

Upstaged by a pop band, he travels increasingly far afield in search of an audience not yet jaded by his outmoded act. He arrives on a remote Scottish island at the very moment that community gets electricity, so that both he and a local band of traditional musicians are replaced by a jukebox almost overnight. 

One young girl there is captivated by his magic and believes his tricks to be real. She accompanies him to Edinburgh, where he takes on extra jobs in order to earn enough money to maintain the illusion with lavish gifts for her. 

Chomet adapted it from a screenplay by Jacques Tati, the legendary writer, director and comic actor of films including Jour de Fête (1949), Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). As with all Tati films, there is little dialogue but some clever visual humour. The main character is called Tatischeff (Tati's real name) and is clearly based on Tati, who early in his career had toured the music hall circuits with a comedy stage act. 

Chomet thinks Tati wrote the script for his daughter, Sophie, to assuage his guilt at missing her growing up because he was working. When Chomet requested permission to use a live action clip of Tati in Belleville Rendez-vous, Sophie mentioned the un-filmed script her late father had written in the late 1950s, and suggested an animated adaptation. Sophie herself passed away four months later and the film is dedicated to her.  

The film is ‘beautifully crafted' (Lisa Nesselson, Screen International), with hand-drawn images that are enchanting - ‘almost painfully lovely' (Wendy Ide, The Times). While the vaudeville acts in the film were rendered obsolete by changing tastes, it is animators are currently threatened - by what Chomet sees as Hollywood's preoccupation with computer-generated 3D imagery. "Saying 2D is dead is like saying that a car race is the future of the Tour de France," he told Fiachra Gibbons in The Guardian.


The Illusionist


‘With this home-spun treasure, Chomet proves there is still a place for old-school sleight of hand; for something rare and exotic, majestic and melancholy... You're about to be treated to your own private magic show.'


Chomet has tried to emulate what Disney achieved in the 1960s and early 1970s with 101 Dalmations and The Aristocats. He uses hand-drawn 2D graphics in preference to computerised 3D animation because the images are not perfect, which makes them fitting for stories about living beings, rather than, say, toys or robots.
They possess a charm that ensures the story is a pleasure to behold, even during moments of inaction, and enable the animators to create atmosphere, mood and nostalgia, even a sense of wonder. ‘Somehow the animated rain seems more real than the wet stuff in live-action films' (Lisa Nesselson, Screen International).

Chomet also uses the animation to display some visual trickery, which helps maintain a belief in magic on the viewers' part, at least. Wind-blown feathers are mistaken for snow; a pair of headlights belong not to an oncoming truck but to a pair of police motorbikes; and a book's pages fluttering in the breeze form a shadow on the wall like a flapping bird. ‘In this world of fleeting phenomena and endless ephemerality, Chomet himself proves to be the ultimate illusionist' (Anton Bitel, Sight & Sound).

Chomet conjures up Jacques Tati

The illusionist in the film, Tatischeff, is drawn to resemble Tati - stooped and wide-hipped, with a stoical expression - and, in keeping with Tati, Chomet lets individuals' physicality reveal their feelings. Dialogue is minimal and secondary to what we see on screen. This includes some scenes that are ‘breathtakingly' inventive (Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent), such as the illusionist drunkenly trying to step over the landlord on the stairs of his hotel. The depiction of some of the other characters is less buoyant, like the ventriloquist who has to pawn his dummy and is later seen talking to his hand in a pub.

Just as Chomet featured a clip from Tati's Jour de Fête in Belleville Rendez-vous, the spirit of ‘clownish absurdity' (Anton Bitel, Sight & Sound) is repeated in The Illusionist when Tatischeff nips into a cinema and is confronted by a live action version of himself, as he sees the real Tati on-screen playing his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot in Mon Oncle.

Fish and Ta(t)ties

Like any Tati film, often the comedy unfolds in the background or on the periphery. We catch just a glimpse of a sign on a fish and chip shop offering "egg (battered)", "special egg (in batter)" and "full Scottish breakfast (battered)".

A cameo from The Cameo

The dazzling star of the film is Edinburgh, where Chomet moved after screening Belleville Rendez-vous at the Edinburgh Film Festival seven years ago. ‘Every frame looks like a delicate water-colour - the city's buildings, alleyways, hills, spectacular views - even its 1950s buses - are realised in gorgeous detail' (David Gritten, The Daily Telegraph).

The city of the 1950s is convincingly brought to life. ‘If his [Chomet's] characters walk into a chip shop, you feel sure that it really operated on that corner' (Jonathan Romney, The Independent on Sunday). Thus Edinburgh's Cameo Cinema has a walk-in part when Tatischeff goes inside.


The film exhibits a quiet despair at the dawning of a new age in which agents and employers pocket wads of cash and decisions about whether people get hired are made on a whim. Tatischeff is engaged in a constant battle against the march of time, even losing jobs when his alarm clock doesn't wake him. The sense that he is "out of time" is invoked by the subdued background muzak that comes on whenever he performs.

Despite the humour, the underlying mood is bittersweet, as epitomised by the gnarly rabbit and Tatischeff's fellow performers' downward spiral. The story's downhearted tone may explain why Tati didn't film it.

While the magician may succeed in transforming Alice, his ward, from naïve waif to elegant lady about town, this is likely to be at the cost of her illusions about him being dispelled.


The Illusionist


The Illusionist

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