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I liked Sylvain Chomet's second film better than his first. I was surprised to find how similar they were in terms of the stylization of the characters and the basic approach to pacing and humor and so on. It felt very much an extension of the world of Les Triplettes de Belleville. Jacques Tati's mostly wordless screenplay seems a match made in heaven with Sylvain Chomet's sensibility. I'd even say that in a way this Tati film left more of an impression on me than any of the maestro's films directed by himself. I appreciated his ingenious style of physical comedy based on interaction with physical locations, but his films never connected with my heart. They were amusing and odd and quirky, but didn't really have dramatic weight. The Illusionist works great as a Tati film and has considerable emotional heft, while animation serves as the perfect tool in a wordless film to develop unique characters through different styles of character movement. He did the old master justice and then some by the rather ingenious idea of adapting a Tati script not as live-action but as animation.
The animation was very impressive. The character animation and layout style reminded of Disney films from the 50s and 60s. I imagine this is what could have been if Disney had had any taste whatsoever and wasn't just a factory of kitsch. I've always felt the animation to be wasted in their films on tasteless lowbrow humor and lame-brained stories. Here we see stately and refined but rich character animation serving an understated narrative full of heart, subtle wit and charm, without relying on famous voice-actors, eye-catching action scenes, musical sequences, dialogue crammed into every second so that audiences won't fall asleep, or pop culture references.
The animation used a character-based system just like Disney, so the resemblance makes sense. The animation of the rabbit was led by one person, the Tati character by two people, etc. Tati's animation was pretty impressive. They did a good job of conveying his prim character entirely through body language, by studying the actual Tati's unique brand of silent film-style body movement and transforming it into an even more emphatic animated equivalent. They nailed his character, with his long legs, comically rigid posture and somewhat distant and aloof but gentle expression. The rabbit was also great, and an audience favorite.
The illusionist character in this film is appealing and richly layered, a gentle soul floating through life simply trying to do his job in a modern, scientific world in which good old-fashioned magic just doesn't pack in the music halls the way it used to. In the cynical era of consumer culture, the only use for magic is as a cheap trick to sell stockings and bras to housewives. Yet he never seems bitter or hardened by his lot, always being good to the people he meets in his old-fashioned gentlemanly kind of way. When it comes time he can be firm about what's acceptable in his life and what's not, without being rude or mean, just to the point and matter-of-fact. He seems a bit out of touch, like a gentleman from a century or so ago frozen in time and thawed out in the modern world.
When the the Swedish girl tagging along with him sets her eyes on a pair of red shoes, despite being short on cash, he can't resist buying them for her to make her happy. Then she eyes a fancy white coat, and he beats a hasty retreat. But sure enough, like a good father, the thought of making her happy overcomes all common sense, and he soon surprises her with the coat. It's pleasing to watch the interaction between this odd couple. You're never quite sure what one thinks of the other or why they're together, but they seem happy with each other, at least for the moment. They're both travelers who've found a companion until they inevitably have to part ways. The ending is bittersweet and genuinely affecting because there's no big parting scene or crying or anything like that. You sense them drifting apart and it's sad because you know it has to be that way. The characters in the film accrue layers of nuance throughout the course of the film through their actions and interactions, and even seem to develop and grow up and older.
I like the loose dramatic structure of the film, which seems to just follow the illusionist around as he goes from one job to another. It focuses your attention on the personalities of the characters rather than on the particulars of the narrative.
I didn't recognize many names in the credits, but I did spot Antoine Antin, who did my favorite scene in the Wakfu: Nox short, the scene at the beginning on the beach. Some of his linetests.
This is my favorite kind of narrative in many ways: A story with no dramatic ploys. No sudden revelation, dramatic confrontation or fabricated crisis for the purpose of filling in the blanks on a template of filmmaking that really doesn't make sense but that nobody bothers to re-consider. While I might not completely understand what it was that Tati was trying to do with his films, which seem aimless to me at times, I appreciate the way they flow without going through the standard dramatic paces. Of course, you can trace a certain development between the characters, and the story comes to a climax of sorts where the girl meets the boy exactly where you'd expect it to, but that's fine. It felt like a slice of life and natural development, rather than a forced dramatic ploy. For example I appreciated that there was no big climax in this film. The climactic car chase in Les Triplettes de Belleville was so bad and so unnecessary it almost ruined the film for me.
The film does have dialogue, but only a small amount, and none of it is functional. I don't know whether this was in Tati's original screenplay, but the situation is such that language cannot be used to convey meaning, providing the perfect pretext for Tati's preferred style of storytelling in which dialogue does not play a role. Tati himself speaks French, but he's travelling in the UK and Scotland, where they only speak English, and he encounters a girl who appears to only speak Swedish. So nobody speaks each other's language. There's no need for dialogue, so everything that needs to be communicated is communicated through gestures and a few words.
Sylvain Chomet seems to like travel films, and I can understand why. They provide him with room to flex his caricatural muscles and cast an ironic light on the foibles of various cultures. He's good at distilling the essence of a people's features and personalities and comically exaggerating them. It's very impressive how each of the many characters that appear on the screen are stylized in a completely unique way and have their own unique mode of movement. The same could be said of his previous film. I was particularly fond of the floppy maitre d' in Bellevile. Anime could really use to learn from this - one film can come up with so many designs, when year after year in anime, series after series are designed with such an astoundingly paltry amount of creativity put into the design work.
I haven’t seen the film yet, unfortunately (I hope I will soon), but I agree with your comments about Disney - great technical skills being wasted on poor ideas (actually, that’s the main flaw of American cinema in general). As for Tati, I thought “Play Time” was amazing, but the one film of his that really connected with my heart was “Mon Oncle". It didn’t happen at once. Tati’s films are so understated that one misses much of what is there on the first viewing. Subsequent viewings are always better.
Glad to hear you enjoyed the film, Ben. I’m also pleased that overall it seems to have touched audiences with the true power animation has to tell painfully understated drama, something the Japanese have known for a while, but something I think Chomet manages like a master. It’s a shame to hear this is his last animated film (apparently he’s destined for a live-action Parisian musical next).
Upon second viewing I really appreciated the true depth and richness of all the characters, the Scottish island village felt truly alive and functioning, but I was stunned by the complexity of the physical relationship between Tatischef and the Gaelic Girl (the native Scottish language she was speaking, not Swedish, though they sound similar I’ll admit) and yet how it managed to stay clear enough that it was compelling.
For my money, perhaps the best animated film I’ve seen so far this year. It shows similar raw power that lies in animated cinema that Mary and Max explored last year, and it has certainly connected with audiences, showing how animation can be wonderfully understated, not just peppered with obligatory ‘quiet moments’ as Pixar have recently been championing themselves for.
I was trying to figure out what language it was she was speaking, but I guess I wasn’t familiar with Gaelic and she was mostly mumbling so for some weird reason I started thinking it sounded like Swedish, haha. Thanks for the correction. I should have thought about where she was and made the connection.
I agree with your point about the Scottish village - it felt very real and authentic, the way village life would have been at that time. Maybe this is the aspect that reminded me of one of my favorite films, I Know Where I’m Going, which was set in Scotland and shot during the time period this film was set in. Pretty impressive for an animated film to accurately capture not only a locale but a locate at a particular time in history.