Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Illusionist (2010)


While watching The Illusionist I found myself engrossed  in comparison to another film which I've often found myself reflecting upon. Much like this one, it is a tale of an elderly man caught in a world leaving him behind and a young woman unsure of what the future might entail. That film is Charlie Chaplin's oft overlooked Limelight. It can be an eye opening, world shattering, event to find yourself at the end of your road intersecting with someone just now beginning theirs. The cascade of defining events so contrasting now overlapping can bring out the best, or worst, in people. In the case of The Illusionist, there's a bit of both.

As a visual artist, Sylvain Chomet is one of a select few to have found the equilibrium between realism and inflation in animated cinema. Each new scene, shot, composition, drawing, whatever your preferred defining variable to the world Chomet creates is breathtaking. With every passing frame, I felt my eyes widen and my heart leap. An intense appreciate for the artistry in such films only one other filmmaker has managed to excite out of me in recent years, that of course being Hayao Miyazaki. In keeping with his Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist is defined almost entirely by visual components presented to the viewer as opposed to the traditional use of dialogue as a means of explaining circumstances.

This is, as many have noted, to the advantage and disadvantage of the film. On the one hand, the beautiful images are so amazing you could easily love the film entirely on that aspect alone. Then again, to do so would be to ignore a few glaring befuddling plot points that weight the film down like an all night buffalo wing binge. First and foremost: motive. While the audience can apply onto the characters a motive of their choosing, the lack of dialogue between them leads to a lack of understanding about them. They act in a manner that is generally consistent, but void of context. Our Illusionist shows a deep care for the young country girl, Alice, he picks up as a loyal fan, but why is entirely left by the wayside. Is it some sentiment of love? Perhaps a parental instinct taken in due to a life on the road with no means to have, or support a family? Or one of any other number of reasons? Who knows.

Then you have Alice, who opens with brief escapades of sympathy and childlike innocence, but seems to lose track of them as the film progresses. Her relationship with the Illusionist appears to be one built entirely on self-gain. She gets to see his magic and in turn he pays for her to have a room to sleep, food to eat, and works nightly shifts to afford her the latest fashionable clothes she often begs for. For this reason alone I would argue that our Illusionist sees a father-daughter quality in his relationship with Alice. An odd mix-max combination of social requirement to look after her, and personal desire. Why he decides to apply a relationship so deep, so quickly is well beyond me.

Which leads to the ultimate struggle The Illustionist has as a film. It's slow, imagery based narrative relies on these characters to see us through the more personal action. What they do and why they do it is crucial to understanding the motives and flow of events. The solemn, melancholic vibe to the film struggles under the weight of underdevelopment. Our emotional investments in these characters are purely self applied with no middle ground with which we can find a resonating balance. In the end, I still couldn't help but reflect even more greatly on Limelight. On the vast, contrasting final shots that come to define both. And, unfortunately, how The Illusionist tales a long told, often repeated tale, and just doesn't quite have enough to elevate it above being merely another fine film amidst a sea of greatness.

Film Credits:
Written and Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
Original Screenplay by: Jacques Tati

4 better thoughts:

Rich said...

I said similar things in my write-up of this movie; that without real dialogue, it's difficult to fully understand why Tatischeff and Alice do the things they do, although one can certainly interpret and extrapolate. I saw it with a Francophile friend who caught things said in French that would've gone over my head, and that helped, but I would've liked dialogue in the end. Good movie, though.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So it's a long shot for Best Animation, huh?

Simon said...

I defend the girl as being so innocent she doesn't realize the Illusionist isn't really magic, and therefore thinks he just makes the clothes pop out of thin air. Or else makes tons of money.

How unfair is it that Toy Story 3 gets both Picture and Animated? That's hardly giving the rest a fighting chance.

Univarn said...

@Rich I suppose if I knew more about Jacques Tati, I might have a better understanding of this film (since it was apparently meant to be a reconciliation film for him and his daughter before he died), but I don't and struggle to want to learn all that just to gain a better appreciation for this movie.

@AlexJ Definitely a long shot.

@Simon I'm not saying she's a bad person, but that over the progression of the film she seems to be less compassionate and more self concerned with passing longings towards the friends she made along the way.

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