The Illusionist (France/UK)

2010 France/UK

SUNDAY 6th MAY 10.00 am


In this animation set in the late 1950s, an out-dated and aging magician (voice of Jean-Claude Donda) travels in search of work, forced to accept increasingly obscure engagements to get by. Travelling to Scotland, his gloom is lifted when he encounters Alice (voice of Eilidh Rankin), an innocent young girl who will change his life forever. Watching his performance, Alice becomes fascinated by The Illusionist and believes his tricks are real magic. Though they don’t speak the same language, the two lonely strangers quickly bond through shared small kindnesses. As they travel together to Edinburgh for work, The Illusionist cannot bring himself to reveal that real magic does not exist for fear of disappointing Alice.


The exquisite illustrative signature style of Sylvain Chomet leaves a haunting impression in this whimsical tale about an illusionist who delights a young girl with magic. The story is from a semi-autobiographical script by Jacques Tati – famed director of Mr Hulot’s Holiday and mime artist – which has been adapted by Chomet with his distinctive cinematic eye. The result is a wistful story with a melancholy aftertaste, couched in the cinematic brilliance of the creator of the unforgettable The Triplets of Belleville. The Illusionist may not reach the heights of Triplets, but it is nonetheless a delicate and technically astonishing work.

It is Paris, 1959, and we get a sense of what the lonely life of an artist is like for The Illusionist, a hard-working travelling magician whose bag of tricks includes a cute white rabbit which he repeatedly pulls from a top hat. Soon he is on his way to rainy London, where Big Ben stands tall and red buses are plentiful after a train ride and a ferry crossing. By the time he follows a David Bowie-style pop idol on stage, the screaming crowd has shrunk to an audience of two; then it’s time to head through the chilly, winding countryside of Scotland with its crystal clear lakes. It is at Little Joe’s Hotel in the company of acrobats, a ventriloquist and sad clown that he meets Alice, a young domestic, and a relationship of the paternal kind blossoms. She is wide-eyed and mesmerized from the tricks he performs, believing that magic is real. He is loath to allow her to believe otherwise.

With next to no dialogue, Chomet tells the story through imagery. The illusionist’s heart is clearly as large as he is tall (like Tati) and rather than disillusion Alice, gifts her with a pretty white coat, high heels and an Alice in Wonderland blue dress, working around the clock to pay for them with extra odd-jobs.

The detail of the animation is extraordinary and Chomet creates a world that feels absolutely real. There are myriads of moments that we remember, like the secretary filing her nails at her desk, the rabbit leaping onto the bed at night, the neighbour reading the paper at the window and that charming, tense and emotion-filled sequence in which the girl cooks a pot of soup for all the struggling entertainers. The film’s revelation that life without magic is dull is beautifully realised and impacts profoundly on the mood, its disillusionment casting a tragic note. Chomet composed the music in 3/4 waltz time, bringing a rhythmic and lyrical meter to the proceedings. For all its artistic brilliance, The Illusionist disappointed me somewhat; perhaps the storytelling does not quite capture its emotional potency.  First published in the Sun-Herald

Review by Andrew L. Urban

Sylvain Chomet’s unique, hand drawn animation is incredibly detailed, atmospheric and complex, as illustrated by his wonderful, Oscar nominated feature, The Triplets of Belleville (2004). His latest work, The Illusionist, is also Oscar nominated, a melancholy work based on an unproduced screenplay by highly acclaimed French director and comedic actor (and mime artist) Jacques Tati (1907 – 1982).

Chomet certainly can’t be accused of repeating himself with The Illusionist, although of course his signature style is evident, as is his superb fusing of (his own) music to picture. But the storytelling here is not as sharp, the characters not as engaging … and there is less humour in the way the characters and story meet.

The Illusionist is a tall, gangly figure much like Tati, and his routine of tricks is outdated, ranging from the white rabbit in a hat to lightbulbs on a string pulled from his mouth. But they are good enough to engage and fascinate young Alice, who becomes his companion on his round of theatres and music halls.

The characters are perhaps less detailed than their environments, notably the buildings of the various cities which are lovingly created and the many interiors. Chomet makes good use of incidental showbiz characters, acrobats and ventriloquist in particular. He also includes some spectacular sweeps of urban scapes, revelling in the mastery of his craft. And always, his tasteful and appropriate use of music.

The story is at times hard to follow, especially as he avoids dialogue; one or two lines are discernible but what little dialogue there is comes out as a strange, alien tongue, more suggestive by tone than precise by recognisable meaning.

The last third of the film is the most effective and the most affecting, as the inevitable happens and Alice’s faith in magic has to be shaken. But it’s not a downer of an ending, rather a philosophical one.