Chomet’s “Ilussionist” modern masterpiece

I have always felt that animation has a lot of unused potential, in part because our culture tends to synonymize it with children’s entertainment. Some visionary animators, however, have managed to step outside of conventions to produce works of astounding beauty and originality. Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist,” nominated earlier this year for Best Animated Feature, is one of those films.

You may remember Chomet as the French animator who startled critics with his quirky comedy “The Triplets of Belleville” in 2003. Here he has crafted a very different kind of film, one that uses his magical gifts for caricature not for garish comic effect but rather to express the melancholy emotions of a life that is fading and another that is just beginning.

Tatischeff is an aging stage magician who finds that time has passed him by: People now prefer pop groups to stage magic. After failing in one music hall after another, he ends up in Scotland, where he befriends a young, presumably orphaned girl named Alice.
Alice has all of her capacity for childish wonder intact. She becomes fascinated with the illusionist, believing his tricks to be real, and a bond develops between them.

Tatischeff treats her as he would a daughter, buying her first a pair of shoes and later a nice coat even as his career continues to plummet.
Alice in her innocence does not understand how much he sacrifices for her, nor can she understand his feelings toward her. Crushed by an uncaring world, the illusionist longs to shelter her from the cold realities of life, but knows that he cannot.

The film impresses ever so gently that the loss of innocence, though painful, is a necessary part of growing up, and that this moment of discovery can be devastating to the one who walks through life with his or her head in the clouds.

The movie plays out like a visual poem, beautiful yet somber. It sparkles with poignant little throwaway moments.

One scene, for example, finds a clown beaten up by the children he wants to entertain. Later he tries to hang himself in his hotel room, but is interrupted when Alice suddenly stops by to offer him some soup. This bit of kindness inspires him to take another chance at life.

Because animation is an art of exaggeration, I believe it can sometimes convey the arc of an emotion, idea, or experience more effectively than live action. The film contains almost no dialogue, nor does it need it. It communicates everything it needs to purely through visual means.

I absolutely loved this movie. In fact, it has gone on to become one of my new all-time favorites. I sincerely hope that Chomet, with his singularly innovative artistic vision, eventually goes down as one of the most important figures in animation, along with Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. If “The Illusionist” is only his second film, I cannot wait to see where he goes from here.


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