When I first started grading films for myself back in ‘07, I made a rule to never give a film a perfect score upon first viewing. I believe films have to pass the test of time and find their real place under new cultural and social circumstances, so they can be considered perfect.
Every year though, one or two films come out that make me regret this self-imposed rule. They appear so flawless, so magical, that when the closing credits role, I already know it’s impossible for me to ever like them any less on repeat viewings. And 2010 being no exception, has produced one such film thus far: The Illusionist.
Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2003 film, Triplets of Belleville, is based on an unproduced script by the French comic master, Jacques Tati and you can sense the presence of his vision all over the film.
This enchanting dark comedy tells the story of an old illusionist, struggling with his profession in the wake of the Rock ‘n Roll era. As his gigs lose their place with the public, he decides to move from Paris to the outskirts of Scotland to continue to put on shows.
Monsieur Tatischeff (named after Tati himself and the film does seem like a semi-autobiographical piece) starts a friendship with a Scottish girl who then follows him to Edinburgh. The film is the tale of Tatischeff’s dedication to his fading art form and to the girl who becomes sort of a daughter figure for him as he goes to any extreme to make sure of her comfort.
Needless to say, Chomet’s animation style is indispensable to the film. As good as the Pixar team may be, it’s hard to imagine this film in 3D animation. Chomet’s own dedication to 2D drawn cartoons is a great reflection of the story we see on the screen. What’s instrumental in the audience’s emotional attachment to the film is how Chomet delicately details the drawings in every frame and colourfully paints them. The story is tender and moving and so are the images that recount it; and these are especially important, because as you might expect from Tati and Chomet, the film contains virtually no dialogue.
The Illusionist is not just a personal father-daughter love story though; it is also one of the greatest films in critique of our modern society. The commentary doesn’t really have the form of in-your-face criticism though, it comes more in the shape of praise for traditional human relationships and true love. It shows us good and evil and it shows us how the modern world and its material pleasures leave us devoid of the human touch, devoid of the magic between the illusionist and the girl.