My viewing patterns of Jacques Tati — France’s greatest comedy filmmaker — have been tightly structured over the past decade. “Jour de fête” and the early shorts are a fitting introduction for the unacquainted; “Mon oncle” is a sprightly attraction for low-key parties; “Playtime” is for the close, trusted friends: a sharp, smart picture that opens your eyes to the world like no other film.
The one Tati I’ve always been reluctant to share with anyone is “Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot.” For the past 10 years, I’ve watched “Monsieur Hulot” every summer, hiding away from the insufferable heat and excessive sun of the season with the gorgeous blonde, the downhearted waiter, the odd old couple, the incensed retired general and, of course, Monsieur Hulot. This is my world, my chaotic, antique vacation spot. No one I know had a place there; no one has been allowed to enter this vigilantly-guarded shell of mine.
For the past 36 years, since the release of Tati’s last film, “Parade,” Monsieur Hulot has survived in the memory of his devotees, carrying the essence of a bygone era forever immortalized on celluloid.
The circumstances that led me to the unexpected resurrection of one of cinema’s most iconic characters this year were somewhat different, and certainly more startling, than my annual solitary sojourns with Hulot and co. A few years back, luminary French animator Sylvian Chomet, director of the 2003 Oscar nominee “Les triplettes de Belleville,” announced that his next project would be an adaptation of an unfilmed script by Tati entitled “The Illusionist.” The highly-anticipated hand-drawn animated feature premiered earlier this year outside Berlin Film Fest’s competition, receiving unanimously raving reviews.
I went to see “The Illusionist” on day six of the Berlinale, the longest, most exhausting day of the entire fest. Having endured three consecutive pieces of the most dreadful cinema, I was desperately seeking some respite when I entered the grand Kino International, the oldest French theater in Berlin.
To my surprise, I found myself seated next to a strikingly beautiful young woman holding a copy of the collected poems of Thomas Dylan, one of my favorite poets. It took me a minute to overcome my unwavering diffidence and strike up a conversation with her. As we waited for the film to start, we talked a bit about poetry and our mutual love for Monsieur Hulot. Now, any single film critic would attest that there’s nothing more exciting than meeting a beautiful, intelligent girl in a cinema.
But then the movie started and I was instantly thrown off-balance, readily succumbing to Chomet’s bittersweet, nostalgic excursion. For the next 90 minutes, my defenses crumbled, as I laughed, sniveled and contemplated the slow disappearance of Chomet’s quiet, beautiful universe. And for those swift 90 minutes, I was reminded why I fell in love with the movies in the first place.
“The Illusionist” is both an homage to Tati and an elegy to the deceased culture he fervently championed; a subtle rumination on transience of time, growing up and letting go; a heartbreaking story of a father-daughter relationship rendered with piercing tenderness and affection. And it’s easily the best film of the year so far.
Set in the 50s, the central figure of “The Illusionist” is Tatischeff (Tati’s birth name), the laconic, tall, lumbering incarnate of Monsieur Hulot. Taking a cue from Charles Chaplin’s “Limelight,” Tatischeff is a has-been middle-aged Parisian magician treading on fading glories in a rapidly evolving world that no longer believes in magic; a quixotic figure thrust in a lost battle against the sands of time.
Having become an unwelcome attraction in his hometown, Tatischeff moves from one place to another in search for an appreciative audience, and ultimately failing. His classic vaudeville act is constantly upstaged by Beatles-like rock outfit, Billy Boy and the Britoons, both in London and later in Edinburgh. His unlucky streak continues when he reaches the Scottish capital: Electricity is introduced to the island where he’s scheduled to make an appearance in one of its small, remote pubs that instantly replaces him with a jukebox.
During his latest unfruitful endeavor, he meets a young, innocent waif named Alice whom he dazzles with his magic tricks and takes her as a daughter. As music halls and small bars prove to be immune to Tatischeff’s artistic courtship, he’s forced to take on smaller gigs, working at some point as a mechanic and a wall painter.
All the while, Alice never loses her faith in his magic, sticking closely by his side as he struggles to sustain the illusion and shelters her away from the real world.
Chomet’s dialogue-free film bears the general hallmarks of Tati’s best films: the interplay between foreground and background (best illustrated in the outdoor party sequence), the meticulous, rich sound design and the slight detachment of image from soundtrack (there’s a strong emphasis on ambient noises, clattering, grunts and bit and pieces of scattered dialogue lines) and the carefully orchestrated sight gags.
There are several direct nods to Tati and his films. In one scene, Tatischeff is seen holding a glass door to a couple, appearing to recreate “Playtime’s” famous archaic sequence. In a less subtle one, Tatischeff runs into a cinema playing “Mon Oncle” (the sequence immediately drew loud applause).
Like Tati, Chomet enhances his comedy with a highly eccentric party of supporting characters: The drunken Scotsman, the young acrobats, the suicidal clown and the disobeying stage rabbit, Tatischeff’s close companion.
Unlike Tati, the mood in here is generally more plaintive than humorous. Even in his most critical, derisive moments, Tati rarely deviate from the buoyant, blithe ambiance that governs his films. Monsieur Hulot is an outsider, a nonconformist figure wrestling, and exposing, the ills, banalities and absurdities of modernity. No matter how stern the struggle may be, Hulot always emerged triumphant, managing to find a place in this dehumanized world of ours.
“The Illusionist” contains none of Tati’s vindicated optimism. Washed in whimsy and longing, Chomet’s film is imbued with unceasing resignation; a devastating sense of surrender. The specter of time haunts every frame of the film. Tatischeff can only fend off the unavoidable sweep of his obsolesce for a short while, and soon, he must accept that he has no place in this world.
He must also let go of Alice, committing one last sacrifice distantly recalling Yasujirô Ozu’s “Late Spring” that will propel her into adulthood.
Chomet’s soft, wistful and immersive 2-D animation is the perfect medium for such an intimate story; so perfect in fact that it makes the best Pixar movies look mechanical and soulless. The smooth lines, plush pastel colors, gentle wintry light and Edinburgh’s splendidly unique geography all make for a breathtaking — and quintessentially French — objet d’art that can only be compared to works of great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away”).
My reaction to the film was quite dramatic. The much-discussed last line in the film left me in tears for 10 consecutive minutes. I struggled to control my tears, drying my eyes out in embarrassment as soon as the lights turned on. It turned out though that I wasn’t the sole feeble soul struck by the subversive power of the experience.
It took me quite some time to unearth the roots of that moment. The central relationship between Tatischeff and Alice is a universal one. We’ve all been forced to let go of a beloved one at one point or another in our lives: A parent, friend or sibling. We’ve all been driven to give up a certain life in exchange for another. The flood of tears I shed were mottled with a crushing sense of loss; a loss for all the people I lost during the years: the dead, the departed and the married ones. Time is mankind’s greatest enemy; an unconquerable foe growing more invincible as time goes by.
There was a time when I believed that a movie, a book or a music record could change a life. Cynicism is the name of our game; the guiding principle of my profession. “The Illusionist” — the first real masterpiece of the new decade — is a reminder of how transportive, how enchanting the movies can be; a reminder not only of personal losses, but of the innocence the world has been deprived of.
Later that evening, I took the Thomas Dylan girl for a late dinner. We talked more about Tati and French films, my obsession with Sylvia Plath and new-found admiration for Claude Debussy. Few hours later, I found out that I lost her phone number (along with my hotel key and my notebook). I was never able to find her whereabouts.
I still vividly recall the details of that evening; the blistering cold, the smell of the Kino, the unusual necklace chain the girl was wearing and that last line of the film. Amid the daily routines, usual tragedies and failed romances; memories of that day have constantly stood tall, clouding over everything else. Somehow, I never really left that theater, and I still don’t want to.
“The Illusionist” is currently playing in the UK and some parts of Europe. It opens in North American on Christmas day.