“Magicians Don’t Exist” – The Illusionist (2010)

Though the “buzz” this year at the 60th Berlinale has been primarily reserved for films like Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2010) and Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) (the latter of which just won the Silver Bear for Best Director tonight), a real gem outside of the buzz lay in the obscure reaches of the “Berlinale Special Gala” section, namely director Sylvain Chomet‘s latest 2D animated feature, the UK/French co-production The Illusionist (2010).

I saw the world premiere at the Kino International in Berlin on February 16, 2010 with Chomet in attendance.  It was quite excellent.

In case you want to skip to “what I think” of the film as a cultural consumer in shorter blurb form, here it is with complimentary quotation marks:

“A bittersweet and arguably timeless encounter between the theater of attractions and the television-centric post-war world.  Chomet has not so much created a hyperbolic version of our reality (as in Triplets of Belleville), but rather has created a living archive of Edinburgh ca. 1959 that troubles the boundaries of nostalgia.”

There you have it.  The rest, as they say, is details.

2/3 of the Plot

I won’t spoil the film here too much, so I’ll describe the film in the classic “2/3 of the film” format embodied in so many trailers and film publicity:

Europe 1959: An aging illusionist finds diminishing audiences for his productions as he is supplanted by new forms of entertainment such as rock n’ roll.  When he travels to an obscure isle off Scotland celebrating the introduction of electricity (the very technology displacing his brand of entertainment), he gets to know the daughter of a local family.  The girl sneaks off with the illusionist, and winds up living with him in Edinburgh as he struggles to scrape together a living.  There they meet challenges that will test the bounds of their relationship…


The script to this mostly silent film was originally written by French filmmaker Jacques Tati in 1956.  Chomet got the script in 2000 from Sophie Tatischeff, Tati’s daughter, and has been working on it with his team over the last decade.  There is some strong overlap between Tati’s biography and the content of the film, such that the illusionist in the film even resembles the famous director down to his minute movements.  The film had a budget of 10 million pounds, primarily provided by the French film company Pathé.

For an old-school animator, Chomet has a remarkable record of attracting banal controversies, from Nicolas De Crécy’s allegations of plagiarism regarding The Triplets of Belleville (2004), to his off-hand remarks after he moved to Edinburgh about how Scottish art schools insufficiently trained their animators, from the fraught development of a surrealist “Scottish Simpsons” TV show called The Clan to accusations by Jacques Tati’s grandson that The Illusionist writes Tati’s illegitimate daughter Helga out of the family history.  When placed next to each other, however, these “controversies” appear relatively tame and more the product of scandalization mechanisms within the modern media attention economy rather than missteps on the director’s part.  Nevertheless, Chomet bears a somewhat tarnished image within the international animation community, perhaps if only for completing The Illusionist nearly three years behind schedule and needing to export much of the cell animation on the project to presumably underpaid South Korean animators.

Why Magicians Don’t Exist

If you watch The Illusionist, however, you can actually see Chomet’s relationship with this “tarnish.”  The film is an allegory of the artist’s relation to indifferent socio-economic processes, an open-ended narrative about the cruelty of the system in which one must ply one’s trade.  In a fateful moment of the film, the illusionist writes the girl a note simply stating that “Magicians don’t exist.”  Chomet elaborated on this point in the discussion after the film:

“I’m not trying to say with this film that magic doesn’t exist.
Ask any animator and they can prove you wrong.  But Tatischeff
believes that magicians don’t exist – these people who can
constantly perform miracles for an expectant audience.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the point rings true through the content of the film:  we see that people are somewhat impressed by the magic that the illusionist practices, despite the pathetic ambience of the music hall and his not having control over his rabbit in the hat, but no one can truly live off such tricks.  There is no magician trade; just schmucks who can make a few bucks off their magic.  I actually recall Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) bearing a similar message, with Hugh Jackman’s character declaring that “the audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through.”  In an era when filmmakers can easily make a successful first film, but almost inevitably choke on hard financial realities when attempting to make their second film, Chomet’s portrait of the artist under capitalism is finely depicted.

There are some who might call The Illusionist nostalgic, but that would be their own misreading of the text.  The magician’s rabbit is hostile, the unwilling slave of the magician.  Every car that drives by is foregrounded on the soundtrack, a continuous reminder of the loudness of the consumer automobile age.  Computer animation effects are mixed in with the 2D cell animation (as Hayao Miyazaki did in Ponyo, for example) when more dramatically effective, soiling the work’s aesthetic “purity.”  The characters seem selfish and more than a little naive.  What we are seeing, rather than nostalgia, is the modernist confrontation between two parallel systems of entertainment capital, vaudeville/music halls vs. television/radio (and cell animation vs. CGI animation), neither morally superior but one supplanting the other nevertheless.  The film roots itself in the polemics of the 70s animated film The Mouse and His Child (1977), in which the Old meeting the New reveals the tragic flaws of both.  This is also not to forget similar overtones in Triplets:  the three vaudeville flappers leading impoverished existences in order to maintain careers as artists.

All that being said, the real magic of Chomet’s work will forever be sealed in his treatment of animals:  the persistently dog-like dog of Triplets has met its match in the persistently rabbit-like rabbit in The Illusionist.  Human beings may be like objects trapped in time and circumstance, but the animals preserve the spontaneity and personality that keeps us going to animated films.

-posted by guyintheblackhat


4 Responses to “Magicians Don’t Exist” – The Illusionist (2010)

  1. Joanne says:

    Think you have it wrong about Tati’s eldest daughter, she is very much alive and well.


  2. guyintheblackhat says:

    And now a somewhat disparaging review has appeared: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/the-illusionist/

  3. The Fat Man says:

    Dude, nice review. It’s a shame that there are a number of critics calling this movie overhyped crap. Any they can’t say it’s because they see so many movies – I watch movies constantly, good and bad, and I still can recognize a moving piece of art when I see it! BAH!

    Keep up the good blogging and check out my review, if you wish, and our fledgling little review site here.

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