A “tetralogy” is a succession of 4 theatrical plays, specifically 3 tragedies and a satirical comedy that pokes fun at the previous stories. In his latest animated film, based on a story by Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet has turned the concept on it’s head. Tati gave us a series of comedies, and Chomet delivers the melancholic epigram “The Illusionist”.
The film is beautiful to look at, with an astonishing characterization of Tati. He is a hybrid of Tati and his most famous screen persona, Mr. Hulot. If one wants to resurrect dead celebrities for movies, forget the digital reproductions and hire Chomet. He has the distinct movement of Hulot, but is clearly not the happy go lucky man beloved by his fans. I found it troubling to watch him smoke cigarettes instead of his trademark pipe, but I imagine that I am intended to feel that way. This is a troubled character.
His career as a stage magician in music halls is failing along with the other variety actors he shares the hotels with. When a Scottish girl stows away to become a kind of step daughter to him, he struggles to pay for the pretty clothes she desires. As a fan of Tati, this is the most difficult aspect of the story to accept. All of Tati’s previous films were about enjoying life, and not becoming caught up in materialism and work. It is a denial of his legacy. The film includes a reference to “Mon Oncle”, a Tati film where he plays the fun loving uncle with no responsibilities. I have had the pleasure of being an uncle to young children, and the worries of being a parent. If I go to a movie about being parental, I would like it be a more remarkable story.
The girl is drawn to the old magician because he appears to create a pair of red shoes out of thin air. The man has merely given her some new shoes out of charity, but from then on she sees him as some sort of sugar daddy. I do not recall him appearing to enjoy her company very much, he always appears distracted. So it is hard to say they have a real relationship. Also, the story begins with the magician already on his way down, and there is little hope the trajectory will reverse. The Hulot character was not a traditional protagonist, in that he didn’t intentionally make things happen. And here is where the film fails for me. There just isn’t very much drama.
Tati may have written the original story, but it is hard to imagine him actually making it. For it to fall to Chomet to deliver the sorrowful perspective, was probably a blessing for everyone involved.