I did not grow up with the films of Jacques Tati.
I did, however, grow up with a healthy appreciation of silent comedy. I saw my first Chaplin and Keaton films when I was very young, and as long as I’ve been a film fan, I’ve had images of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy in my head. I fell in love with French films in general through Truffaut, my particular Gallic gateway drug. Even so, Tati was not part of my vocabulary.
When I started working at Dave’s Video, a laserdisc-only store in the San Fernando Valley, it was the early 90s, and it was Criterion who introduced me to Tati’s work. “Jour de fete,” “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” “Mon Oncle,” “Play Time,” and “Trafic” were a revelation, the work of a filmmaker who has obviously absorbed the lessons of the silent era of comedy only to bring a new voice to that style. His films weren’t, strictly speaking, silent, but he was a purely visual storyteller. His Mr. Hulot character is as indelible a creation as Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and the real testament to how strong Tati’s work is may be the influence he had with only nine films to his name.
Even today, Tati is not a name I hear referenced often in American film, and I’m not sure what level of awareness there is of these great lovely films he made with younger film viewers, if any. Right now, you can see “Play Time” on Netflix Watch Instantly, so if you want to get a taste of what his work was like, that’s a good place to start. It would be a great way to warm up for a viewing of the new film, “The Illusionist,” but not essential.
“The illusionist” is the new film from Sylvain Chomet, the animator responsible for “The Triplets Of Belleville,” and it began with an unproduced screenplay that was left behind by Tati. Chomet was approached by Tati’s estate about bringing the script to life as an animated film, and the result is a gentle, gorgeous, sweet little film that is in theaters now thanks to Sony Pictures Classics.
The Illusionist is the main character in the film, and Chomet has modeled his lead after Tati, and not just in appearance. For me, the real magic of animation is performance. When you see a drawing communicate a sense of inner life, when there is something in an animated film that makes you believe, if only for a moment, that this drawing is thinking, breathing, walking, talking… that’s magic. That’s something that cinema can do that is pure illusion, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to animation. I admire the combination of craft and artistry and inspiration and just plain magic that it requires to conjure up life from paint and pencil. Chomet’s work is definitely all about the performance. His lead character is constantly performing or en route to his next performance, a very old-school close-up magician, and he’ll take any gig. One booking takes him to a tiny Scottish island about a million miles from anywhere, and during his brief stay in this remote village, he meets a girl named Alice. Simple, sheltered, and unguarded, Alice affects this traveling performer. After all, television and rock and roll are eroding what little audience he still has left in bigger cities. When Alice follows him back to the city, drawn by the magic, he has no choice but to perpetuate the illusion for her. He takes odd jobs to make enough money to produce new illusions to delight her, determined to never let her see that it’s all a trick.
At its heart, “The Illusionist” is sad, a film about trying to hold onto things that inevitably slip away. Chomet’s design of the world of the late ’50s, a world poised to change in ways it can’t anticipate yet, reflects that same sense of fading values that was so important to Tati’s work overall. The longer Tati made films, the sadder they got, and I think he basically saw the world that was evolving around him, and he didn’t care for it. There’s a feeling in the film that there’s no room for art or beauty for its own sake, and that money and commercialism is leeching the real wonder from the world.
It’s interesting how Chomet managed to capture the flavor of Tati’s work but he’s not slavish to it. Considering the fact that Tati originally wrote this script as a way of dealing with his own broken relationship with his daughter, it is beautiful and fitting that she’s the one who brought Chomet the project. Through this animator, a major creative talent in his own right, Tati pulled off one last gorgeous trick. It is a quiet film, and people spoiled by the relentless pace of most modern animation may find themselves impatient at the deliberate way Chomet lets things play out. But viewers who are willing to hand themselves over to this quiet, heartfelt film are going to discover something very special this Christmas season.
“The Illusionist” is now playing in limited release.