Review: The Illusionist
In an age where technology and trends press forward on a daily basis, so fast that many are left dizzied to the point of not even trying to keep up, the fear of being obsolete is an especially potent one. It’s a fear addressed with tenderness and nobility in The Illusionist, revered French animator Sylvain Chomet’s latest exercise in stunningly artful retro-animation. The hand-drawn feature follows its protagonist, a middle-aged stage magician, through the heartbreaking process of being left behind, and though it takes place primarily in 1950s Scotland, it’s representative of a feeling we all have when we’re affected by a creeping belief that the world is passing us by.
In the film, our affable and nameless illusionist moves from one low-paying, sparsely attended venue to another, saddened by the lack of audience enthusiasm for his shows but nobly maintaining a stiff upper lip through it all, even as a fey pop rock band rudely perform encore after encore while he waits with his top hat and overweight rabbit behind the curtain. It’s only after venturing to a remote Scottish hamlet that he finds someone truly enamored with his art, a young girl who watches his tricks with delight while her fellow townspeople rejoice at the arrival of electric lights and a new jukebox for the town bar. The girl tags along with him to the urban jungle of Edinburgh, where he acts on his fatherly desire to please the girl by buying her things. What develops is a touching, somber, and ultimately tragic story of the old giving itself to the new, with the new gobbling up the riches and displaying only a passing concern for the fate of its predecessor. The girl is enthralled by the Illusionist’s magic only she discovers to more visceral stiumuli of the big city, and though she does show care for her older caretaker, she leaves him by himself when a younger fellow comes along who can satisfy for her material desires and her awakening sexuality. The noble old man is essentially left in the dust without thanks, and though it’s hard to imagine this narrative being rendered more beautifully on an aesthetic level, it certainly leaves one in a distinct state of melancholy.
And let’s not pass over just how stunning the aesthetics here are. The hand-drawn canvases and the gracefully rendered characters who inhabit them call back to the most visually accomplished Disney works, such as Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio. The animation here is simply as good as it gets in the hand-drawn medium. And the use carefully chosen musical cues to give voice to the emotions of essentially silent characters has the nuance and specificity of Chaplin, letting those feelings immanate from the proceedings. The narrative itself is slight yet impeccably structured, easily followed and understood, with each new location bringing a new array of complex themes and emotional development. We feel the combination of resolute dignity and barely subdued consternation embodied in the illusionist, who represents a noble and outmoded brand of masculinity that has all but vanished inside the modern gulf between desperately strained machismo and “enlightened male” neediness.
Nostalgically calling back to this classical male nobility is a worthy endeavor. But where the film runs into some problems is in its treacherous melding of femininity with voracious modern materialism. The gender roles here are clearly old-school from the get-go, but the film never tries to push past them, and indeed gives them bitter voice. The girl seems to believe the new shoes and coats she receives come by way of the illusionist’s magic, and though he plays into this belief while taking on late-night jobs to sustain it, the narrative never builds the girl into anything more than a coalescence of materialistic want. When the illusionist can longer satisfy her hunger, she simply moves on to someone who can. The illusionist then takes a job hawking women’s clothes in a department store window, wearing a pink suit while doing so, obviously humiliated and angry. It’s a careless portrait of the good ole boy buried under a wave of new feminine desire that a critique just cannot ignore, and it keeps the film from attaining the greatness its other merits bring it so close to achieving.
At the risk of sounding trite, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore. And while some unfortunate gender politics may keep The Illusionist from reaching the highest artistic echelon, it’s an aesthetic near-masterpiece, with a tenderness that most new animation loses underneath comic insistence. We get to follow a man that, while disappointed and occasionally dismayed, takes on the incessant turning of the clock with a quiet dignity.