The Illusionist (L'Illusionniste) (2010), Slyvain Chomet’s latest animated feature, is a quieter, more melancholic affair than his debut film, the wondrous Belleville Rendez-vous (2002). But it has a similar quirky charm, a magic touch that casts a spell over the viewer. Magic, as it turns out, is one of the new film’s concerns. Based on an unproduced Jacques Tati story (and there's lots here for Tati buffs to enjoy), the movie’s focus is on a Tati-esque protagonist, the illusionist of the title, who’s plying his trade in a remote Scottish hamlet when he meets a young girl, Alice, who believes that he really has magic powers. The pair set off for Edinburgh where the Illusionist, Alice believes, will have more opportunities to practise his art.
Chomet’s distinctive animation style, with its mixture of elegance and grotesquery, captivates throughout The Illusionist. The movie is the best argument for hand-drawn over computer animation that you’re likely to see this year. The city-scapes of late 1950s Paris, London and, especially, Edinburgh are stunningly, lovingly rendered. Dialogue is minimal and, mostly, mumbled; Chomet’s physically expressive characters certainly don’t rely upon language to communicate. The central relationship between Alice and the Illusionist is presented with tenderness, but without sentimentality. Chomet’s concern is with the passing of time, and, in particular, changes in entertainment and cultural tastes; the Illusionist’s art, it’s made clear, is being superseded by flashier pastimes, by cinema and rock n roll.
The Illusionist isn’t exhilarating in the way that Belleville Rendez-vous was, and at times it has the (to me)slightly frustrating quality of Tati’s work: almost really funny, but not quite. Even so, Chomet’s style has its own great off-hand wit. And what the movie lacks in Belleville-esque exuberance it more than makes up for in soul. One of the year’s best.