“The Illusionist” Is Director’s Ode to Daughter
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Perhaps you don’t recognize the name of Jacques Tati – but Entertainment Weekly lists him as Number 46 on its list of the 50 Greatest Movie Directors. He was also a comedic actor. And screenwriter.
You cinephiles out there might recognize him as a character in a series of old French films. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” was the first of them. Socially inept and funny, Mr. Hulot with his raincoat, umbrella, and pipe was a familiar figure to Gallic moviegoers.
Turns out, Tati was something of a sad clown. He had an illegitimate daughter, an occurrence that haunted his life. And in 1956 he wrote a script titled “L'illusionniste” in an attempt to make amends for abandoning her. Tati had hoped to star in the semi-autobiographical tale with his daughter Helga, but the film was never produced.
After Tati’s death, the script fell into the hands of his legitimate daughter Sophie. Not wanting to see anyone else play her father’s part, she turned the script over to animator Sylvain Chomet. He’s the director of “The Triplets of Belleville,” a brilliant fantasy that received an Oscar nod.
And now Chomet has made Jacques Tati’s story into a delightful animated film. “The Illusionist” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Despite a demand by Helga’s family that Chomet acknowledge her as the inspiration for the film, he has another opinion. "I think Tati wrote the script for Sophie,” he says. “I think he felt guilty that he spent too long away from his daughter when he was working.”
Needless to say, Helga’s family is not happy. They accuse Chomet of trying to “airbrush out their painful family legacy again.”
However, Pathé Pictures, the studio that backed the film, is more straightforward in giving credit. Its Production Notes state, “The film is based on an unproduced script that the French mime, director and actor Jacques Tati had written in 1956 as a personal letter to his estranged eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel.”
The storyline tells of a small-time illusionist who, along with his ill-tempered white rabbit, travels to a remote Scottish island where he performs in a pub. There he meets a young lady named Alice who believes he is a true magician. She follows him to Edinburgh where his fortunes continue to diminish as he bestows gifts on her. Eventually he has nothing more to give except his honesty about his lack of magical powers.
“It’s not a romance,” says Chomet. “It’s more the relationship between a dad and a daughter.”
Sylvain Chomet claims a kinship with Tati’s script because he has “a daughter who is 17 who I don’t live with because I separated from her mother.” So it’s difficult to tell if the tender melancholy that hangs over “The Illusionist” like the residue of a magician’s flash powder comes from Tati’s experience or from Chomet’s.
Even though Jacques Tati made Entertainment Weekly’s list of Greatest Directors, he only directed six films during his entire career, the fewest of anyone else on the list. And all but two of them featured that awkward but lovable Mr. Hulot. “Mon Oncle” won an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.
Chomet’s “The Illusionist” was nominated this year as Best Animated Feature Film, but lost to “Toy Story 3.” Pixar has a strong magic of its own.
[from Solares Hill]