Granted, you might feel that way even if you're a celebrator of Tati's scant filmography. Adapted from a screenplay written, but never produced by Tati, director Sylvain Chomet has crafted an animated film that feels like Tati's personality painted in broad strokes. This is a long way from the balls-out strangeness of Chomet's last film, the revered Triplets of Belleville, yet it retains a similarly gorgeous impenetrability. By that, I mean to say that The Illusionist is a phenomenal-looking film, and a periodically very funny one. But Chomet's adapted story of an aging magician in a world passing him by is hampered by an increasingly airless relationship between his titular illusionist and a young female companion.
Before we get to that relationship, we meet the illusionist, Tatischeff, as he plays to a near-empty crowd of barely attentive theater-goers in late '50s Edinburgh, Scotland. His life appears a solitary one, even outside of his meagerly-attended performances. His sole companion is a crotchety, overweight rabbit that comes across as though it's been pulled from a few too many hats in its day. Tatischeff seems resigned to his fate as an antiquity of the entertainment world, until a chance meeting with an enthusiastically drunk and wealthy Scotsman has him whisked away to a small village to perform in front of a crowd of his rowdy countrymen.
At first the relationship between the two is a cute, if slightly awkward one. Tatischeff agrees to crash on the couch of their humble little hotel room while she takes the bed (as if to make it clear this is not about a romantic attraction, whatsoever), and she takes it upon herself to clean and cook while the old man is out doing his shows. It's at this point that The Illusionist takes a strange turn. The early goings of the film appear to be headed in the direction of showing a once dimming star begin to rejuvenate himself through new friendship and success, but Chomet's script (and perhaps Tati's--we don't know precisely how much Chomet altered the original story, exactly) instead delves into a strange, stuffy sentimentality, mixed with an increasingly uncomfortable dynamic between Tatischeff and Alice.
After the gift of the shoes, Alice begins seeing all manner of fancy coats, dresses and high heels in various storefronts. Tatischeff, perhaps overly eager to keep the girl happy, continuously gives in to her retail-oriented desires, to the point of having to take on odd jobs to support her "habit," so to speak. This goes on for quite some time, until Tatischeff and Alice find themselves in progressively divergent places. I won't say specifically how their relationship comes to a close, except to say that Chomet's harshly sad final thought of the film comes like a poetic hammer to the skull just as the credits are about to roll.
certain family members believe it to be his eldest, whom he had all but abandoned early in life. The problem is that the nature of that relationship as portrayed in the film is simply stilted and irritating. Alice's big city dreams feel deeply superficial, and Tatischeff becomes less a character of interest, and more one of quiet pity as the film rolls along.
It's a shame, because other elements of The Illusionist's story work extremely well. When he's dealing in elegy to the dying arts of the film's era, Chomet gives us both the film's saddest and funniest moments. The hotel Tatischeff and Alice occupy in Edinburgh is chock full of crazy performance artists, from a trio of acrobatic brothers (who let out little "Hup! Hup! Hup!" sounds as they bound around the architecture) to an alcoholic ventriloquist who is infinitely more charming than nearly any other character in the movie. Chomet even somehow manages to make a scene with a suicidal hobo clown remarkably touching.
Undoubtedly, The Illusionist is a beautiful film. Chomet and his animators paint Edinburgh with exquisite detail, bringing incredible life to a city one has rarely seen on live-action film, let alone animated. It's just a shame that for all this visual splendor and reverence to forgotten art--a reverence clearly stated even in the decision to make the film in traditional hand-animated form, itself a nearly forgotten art--Chomet is unable to make his central characters and their relationship more captivating to the audience.