05 October, 2010

Playing scrabble and eating petits-fours

So here's the thing.

Back in 2004, I was watching the Oscars as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was sweeping every category it was nominated for. One of those categories was for Best Song, for "Into The West" performed by Annie Lennox. And I think we all knew that it would win, although going into the show I preferred "There's a Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", the song from Christopher Guest's folk-music-mockumentary A Mighty Wind. And that was my favourite song of the year, until Lady Haden-Guest came out to introduce a song from some animated film that I'd only vaguely heard of. For the next two minutes, I watched this. My reactions were probably the same as most people watching the song - I started at "This is a really cool song," quickly progressed to "Are they playing a bicycle?" before becoming "Is that a vacuum cleaner?" and finally "That is my favourite song of the year, and I really need to see that film."

Several months later, The Triplets of Belleville played at the film festival. And watching the film, I was delighted to discover that that song was the most normal thing about the film. For a start, the film's story is insane - a cyclist is abducted during the Tour De France race, so the kid's grandmother follows him on a pedal boat across the ocean to America, where she enlists three ageing singing stars to help rescue her grandson from an illegal underground gambling operation run by the mafia. The film is effectively free of dialogue, which seems give the animators free reign to use their art to carefully develop their characters as expressive actors. The highly stylised character design is often grotesque, but never not fascinating to watch. And the humour in the film manages somehow to simultaneously be absurd and farcical, yet nice, gentle, and honest. It's just a genuinely fascinating film, and one that I love to revisit.

The film was very clearly and openly inspired by the great French comic actor/director Jacques Tati, whose own films also minimised dialogue in favour of elaborate visual comedy. (Indeed, in one scene the triplets are seen watching Tati's Jour de Fête.) So I was understandably excited to find that this year's festival featured The Illusionist (see the trailer here), a new film from Sylvain Chomet based on an unproduced script by Tati.

The film follows Tatischeff, a stage illusionist in an era where the appeal of such entertainments is waning in favour of rock bands. Finding himself performing to ever decreasing crowds, or largely ignored as garden party entertainment, he eventually goes to perform in a small Scottish village. There he meets a largely-ignored young girl, who's never seen a stage magician before, and so believes that he really can do magic - a view that's reinforced after he buys her a new pair of shoes and gives it to her by performing a piece of magic. When he leaves the village, the girl follows him. This sweet father-daughter-style relationship develops between the two, with Tatischeff desperately trying to preserve that sense of magic, taking on extra jobs for which he is entirely unsuited to pay for the gifts he buys for her, while at the same time trying to hide his constant absence as he runs to one job or another.

When you have a movie that is based on a script by one of the great film comedians, and that is made by the man who created a hilarious film like Belleville, you expect it to be funny. And it is, absolutely, genuinely hilarious. There are great comic sequences - a particular highlight comes when Tatischeff believes Sophie has made a stew out of his white rabbit - as well as many simple funny jokes, and even some nice subtle jokes slipped into the image without comment. (I look forward to the Blu-Ray, if only to be able to examine the image for every joke.) But what is striking about the film is just how sad it really is. There's a tone of melancholy and sorrow infused into the film. And I think the reasons for that goes back to Tati's motivation in writing the film. It's generally believed that the script was written as an expression of regret by Tati for being so focused on his career that he missed much of his daughter Sophie's growing up (although Tati's first, illegitimate daughter claims that it was about his regret at abandoning her as a baby). Regardless of who Tati wrote it for, that sense of sadness is palpable in the film, with Tati seemingly trying to present himself as the father he wished he had been. To some degree, with that knowledge, it almost feels intrusive to watch the film, as though we're watching something too personal, too intimate, for public consumption.

What also hits you about the film is the incredible sense of nostalgia infused throughout it. Tatischeff is not portrayed as a great magician - he's actually pretty middling, with a fairly clichéd performance (he actually has a rabbit in his hat) - but still it's sad to see the simple pleasures of his show being rejected. Early in the film, we see Tatischeff patiently waiting while a grotesque Beatles/Stones amalgam band perform for hordes of screaming fans, who don't stay for his performance. And it's heartbreakingly sad, because it seems to mark a point where this unique and inventive artform went out of fashion. A few years ago, there were a couple of period films about stage magicians that both came out at about the same time, The Prestige and another film called The Illusionist. Watching those films, it was startling to realise just how big the general audience was for magicians was 100 years ago. These days, of course, the typical magician is relegated to a children's entertainer, and the only people who ever get a wider audience are EXXTREME magicians like David Blaine or Criss Angel, people who are more tiresome than magical. To many, maybe even most adults,stage magic is just kid's stuff, and that sense of wonder that comes with watching a good magic show, of questioning "how'd he do that?" almost seems to be lost.

It almost seems fitting that this paean to an "childish" art form should be presented as an animated film - after all, animation itself is an art form that was once intended to entertain all ages, but is today mostly regarded as kid's fare. Which is a shame, because animation really can be beautiful, and the animation work in the film is simply extraordinary. The character-design fluctuates wildly, from a very naturalistic look for some characters (the design of Tatischeff in particular is as close to a replication of Tati himself as animation could achieve) through to a more exaggerated look (similar to the look of the characters in Belleville) for some supporting characters. Yet the varying looks of the characters all seem to work well together in the film, and never feel incongruous. But the really great thing about the animation is this beautifully designed and detailed world they inhabit. Much as I love the Pixar films, and think some of their films (with Ratatouille as an obvious example) feature some stunning design work, there is something about looking at a traditionally-animated film and being able to see the careful intricacies in the hand-drawn detail that is quite breathtaking. (Again, the Blu-Ray will be an essential purchase.)

The Illusionist is not the film I though it would be, but in a good way. This is not the film that you might expect from a combination of the efforts of the creators of Mr Hulot's Holiday and The Triplets of Belleville. It's not as funny as that combination might lead you to expect, but it is deeper, richer, and a more moving experience, and one that stays in the memory.

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