Sylvain Chomet’s long gestating follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2003 film, Triplets of Belleville, is based on an unproduced script by the French comic master, Jacques Tati. Although Chomet’s authorial stamp is unquestionably on the film
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. Thus, the foundation of the film’s two main story lines is formed: 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 paradoxically, loose and free-spirited, captures the beauty and mood of the milieu. A similar sense of heartfelt nostalgia is nearly unimaginable in the sleek computer-generated animation that we are increasingly served by major American studios. The form is inseparable from the content. Chomet’s own dedication to the dying art of watercolour-inspired animated film cheekily mirrors the essence of the story on the screen. What is instrumental in the audience’s emotional response to the film is Chomet’s meticulous attention to the delicate details and tender humour in every frame – informed, obviously, by Tati’s spirit. The burden of the film’s emotional force is on its visual style, as it contains virtually no dialogue, but Chomet paints The Illusionist in haunting colours, reflecting the story’s bittersweet sense of loss.
The slowly evolving father-daughter dynamic tugs at the heartstrings, but The Illusionist isn’t just a tear-jerker. It is a transcendent, keenly studied critique of modernity and its human toll, not unlike Tati’s most biting commentaries on the modern human condition. Chomet slowly reveals the depth and gravity of the themes at play, through an ostensible story of paternal love. The taste of the film’s bitter eulogy for rare intimacies and human connection is difficult to shake off.