Sylvain Chomet produces a charming animated film, The Illusionist, by adapting the late Jacques Tati’s script, but has sparked unexpected controversy about his hero’s past. by Francisco Lo
Sylvain Chomet has never been shy about his admiration for his idol Jacques Tati. In his film, The Triplets of Bellville, he sneaks in a poster of Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday on the wall of the triplets’ apartment and a glimpse of Tati’s Jour de fête on their TV. Though Chomet is largely an animation director by trade, his non-verbal narrative style owes much to the physical comedy of the late French filmmaker. When Tati’s now-deceased daughter Sophie Tatischeff and her estate handed him her father’s unfilmed script, Chomet found the perfect fit for his next project.
Set in the 1950s, The Illusionist follows its eponymous character in his travels from Paris to Edinburgh, as music hall performers (akin to vaudeville in the U.S.) like him are slowly muscled out by the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Tatischeff, as it is printed on his poster, is unmistakably Jacques Tati in animated form. The lanky French magician’s looks bare an uncanny resemblance to Tati, or more accurately, Tati’s famous onscreen persona Monsieur Hulot. Like Hulot, the ageing magician wears high-water pants, wanders clumsily and is mostly silent. After a series of unsuccessful stints in the city, an intoxicated Scotsman offers him a gig at a countryside pub. The performance at the pub is small but well-received by the locals, and his illusions has enchanted a naïve cleaning girl so much that she decides to follow him to his next stop—Edinburgh. Even as their bond develops, the ageing artist realizes that it will not be long before the innocent youngster grows up.
In Tati’s original script, which is estimated to be written from 1956 to 1959, the story is set in Prague instead of Edinburgh. Chomet changed the setting after falling in love with the Scottish city over a visit for a film festival. He even relocated to Edinburgh and built a studio from scratch, recruiting animators from different countries with the skills to illustrate the film’s hand-drawn graphics. Chomet, in his press release, asserted, “It [2D] adds to the realism, makes it even more potent. And 2D is created by humans. CGI is good for robots and toys, less for humans. I want to see the work of an artist on the screen not a machine whose visuals are too neat, shiny and clean.”
Imperfection, as it turns out, not only defines the film’s organic appearance and sentiments, but also the controversy of the source material that eventually looms over Chomet’s film. In early 2010, a man named Richard McDonald, who claimed to be Tati’s grandson, contacted newspapers and critics including Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert. In his letter to Ebert-which the Chicago critic had posted on his website, McDonald stated that his mother, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, was Tati’s illegitimate daughter, whom the Frenchman had fathered in an affair with a fellow music hall performer in the midst of World War II. According to McDonald’s story, Tati’s elder sister had influenced him to abandone his newborn daughter and long-time lover. A marriage and his career breakthrough soon followed, but Tati never acknowledged his first born, a personal failure which McDonald contributes to the motivation behind The Illusionist, which deals with a man’s struggle in his parental role to a teenage girl. McDonald accuses Chomet and company of ignoring his family’s painful background and whitewashing his grandfather’s intentions by dedicating the film to Tati’s other daughter, Sophie.
The Illusionist never came into fruition in Tati’s lifetime. He is long dead and despite his grandson’s convincing claims, there is no way to determine what his true intentions behind this unfinished project were. This ethical conundrum opens up a Pandora’s Box of whether a work of art should be judged by how factual it claims to be. Fabricated memoirs have been a staple of the literary world— most notably writer James Frey falsified his criminal and drug history in his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. In cinema, a medium where the words “based on a true story” bear little sincerity these days, distortion of reality is not only accepted but encouraged. No one but Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has questioned this past year’s most acclaimed film, The Social Network, for making up a story about him getting mercilessly dumped by his college girlfriend, a scene which is pivotal for his fictionalized self. Millions at the box office and eight Academy Award nominations later, artistic license is granted.
In the case of The Illusionist, it is understandable for McDonald to want to set his family history straight, just as Zuckerberg is dismayed at being portrayed as a sociopathic nerd. Yet it would not be entirely fair for any moviegoer to judge these films based on their supposed factuality. The Illusionist deserves to be judged by its own merit, though Chomet’s insistence in having a cartoon-ized Tati in his animation is simply asking for comparison (or worse, criticism). It is practically impossible for The Illusionist to be able to measure up to the lofty standards of Tati’s idiosyncratic comedic designs, which are meticulously well-crafted and often provokes insights about the absurdity of modern life. But Chomet’s beautiful animation possesses the delicate charm that is sorely lacking in the thrill-seeking computerized animations that have been dominating the field. His parade of minor characters, though less grotesque as the ones in The Triplets of Belleville, is nonetheless a sight to see. The defiantly violent rabbit, which serves a prop for the titular magician, is a disarming little devil that steals the show whenever it appears onscreen. Comedy, however, takes a back seat as Chomet paints a bleak picture of a performer whose craft is no longer in fashion, a poignant analogy to both the financial failures of Tati’s brilliant films and Chomet’s acknowledgement of the diminishing audience for the enchanting art of hand-drawn animations.
The Illusionist opens at AMC 30 on February 4.