THE ILLUSIONIST review; touching and beautiful animated movie not made by Pixar!

rating: 4.5

(Re-posted our Edinburgh Film Festival review as the movie is on limited U.K. release from today) Although they are very different movies in their specifics, it is not too far a stretch to connect Sylvain Chomet€™s lovely new picture The Illusionist to the 2006 Neil Burger movie of the same name. In the latter movie, Edward Norton played a young, brilliant conjurer whose elaborate tricks baffled and delighted the audiences of turn-of-the-century Vienna. We in the audience were invited to share in that delight; the tricks were elegant and deliberately inexplicable. Chomet€™s new animated film could almost be seen as the opposite end of such a magician€™s career; it is set in the €™50s and centres on a magician struggling to deal with how unnecessary he seems to have become. The story takes place in Paris, London, the Highlands and eventually, primarily, Edinburgh, following the magician as he seeks out an audience... He is not bad at what he does, but he is not good enough to live off his talent any more, particularly with rock bands and television on the horizon. His tricks are quaint, the audience can see what€™s up his sleeve, and his rabbit won€™t fully cooperate. When he follows a pop group in a variety show, the curtain rises to reveal an audience of two: the adoring fans have poured out to mob the group of singers, who gambol around with self-importance and foppishness. When he reaches the Highlands €“ which are beautifully rendered €“ he catches the attention of a girl who seems to take his tricks at face value. She is not as concerned about their lack of money as he is, possibly because she thinks he can always conjure some up as a back-up plan. The extent to which the girl really believes in the magician is left ambiguous. They develop a sweet friendship. There is nothing nasty about either of these characters, and nothing particularly unpleasant happens in the course of the movie. It favours melancholy over tragedy. As such it is a gentle, delicate picture, balanced between pathos and absurdity, never crossing too far in either direction. Chomet€™s last movie, Belleville Rendezvous, was a weird and charming story of a French cyclist, told with little to no dialogue. There is a strong silent film influence here, and a few moments that recall Chaplin. There is however a more obvious comparison: the story is adapted from a script by the late Jacques Tati, and the magician is modelled on Tati€™s immortal role of M. Hulot (in one scene our hero pops into a cinema and €œMon Oncle€ is showing €“ the cinema is the Cameo, in Tollcross, and the movie even gets the interior of the cinema right). Like Hulot he seems fairly content despite everything; his resolution is contrasted with a clown who rents a nearby room and contemplates suicide. As the story is told almost entirely in visual terms (there are a few brief and unsubtitled utterances in English, French and, I think, Scots Gaelic) it is a simple story, and as such is suitable for all ages. But it is not simplistic, and is if anything bound to delight adults even more than children. I was caught a little off guard by how touching, in its very understated way, the ending is. Finally, the movie is beautiful. I have seen Edinburgh in quite a few movies, and feel that its strange beauty is seldom captured or employed in aid of the story. Although it is animated and set more than half a century ago, The Illusionist shows it looking as good as it ever has. It is curious, if not wholly surprising, that it has taken an outsider to capture that beauty and prove that, even in the dark Gothic reaches of Edinburgh, magic can still exist.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.