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 one can sense his unique, ethereal vision all over this film. The enchanting dark comedy tells the story of an old illusionist, struggling with his profession during the rise of Rock ‘n Roll's popularity. As the public begins to lose interest in his gigs and move on to hipper attractions, the illusionist decides to leave Paris to the countrysides of Scotland to continue his career.
Monsieur Tatischeff (named after Tati himself – the film does seem like a semi-autobiographical piece) begins a friendship with a young Scottish girl who then follows him to Edinburgh, hence forming the foundation for the film's two main themes to develop: Tatischeff’s dedication to his fading art form and his devotion to the girl – something of a daughter figure for whom he goes to extreme lengths to ensure affection and comfort.
Chomet's style of animation, incredibly detailed but equally free-spirited and loose, contributes greatly to conveying the atmosphere and flow of the film. A similar sense of heartfelt nostalgia is nearly unimaginable in the sleek 3D format that we are increasingly served by major animation studios. Chomet’s own dedication to the dying art of watercolour inspired animation film cheekily mirrors the essence of the story on the screen. What is instrumental in the audience’s emotional response to the film is the way Chomet delicately fills every frame with an abundance of detail and a large dose of humor – informed by the influence of Tati – and paints them with haunting colours. The story is tender and moving, and so are the images that recount it. This is especially important because, as one expects from both Chomet and Tati, The Illusionist contains virtually no dialogue.
Although the gradually forming father-daughter dynamic in the film tugs at the heartstrings, The Illusionist transcends beyond that particular element and becomes a keen observation in critique of modernization. In the tradition of Tati's most biting commentaries on the modern human condition, Chomet's film is effective precisely because its affectionate look at the sweet human interaction at the centre of its plot conceals its true depth. It is only upon reflection, beyond a stream of tears, that the bitter taste of the film's eulogy for such rare intimacies becomes evident and conveys the power that a sense of loss holds on each of us.