Chances are that most of you (“you” being my real or imaginary readers – for all I know all of this blog’s visitors are advertising bots) won’t get a chance to see Sylvain Chomet’s L’Illusionniste, his first animated film after Les Triplettes de Belleville at the cinema. If you do get the chance, take it: there’s an additional layer of magic to seeing the film at a movie theatre, ideally one with red velvet curtains and comfy seats.
L’Illusionniste is a rare beast, a non-computer generated (although many scenes definitely received some help from the digital brush), non-3D animated film aimed primarily at an audience over the age of 12. (You won’t see L’Illusionniste lunchboxes at the shops.) It is also about a rare beast threatened by extinction: the old-fashioned, cabaret-type entertainer, in this case a stage magician. The film is set during the ’60s, at a time when the eponymous illusionist, like his fellow artists, clowns, acrobats and ventriloquists, has all but been replaced by proto-boy bands and electric Wurlitzers. (These days we’re nostalgic about the latter, even.)
The movie’s plot is of a crystalline simplicity and there are few if any surprises. The ageing illusionist, searching for the increasingly rare show he can do here and there, finds himself performing on the Hebrides, where his magic and old-school manners charm a young girl working as a cleaner. When his engagement is over, he heads for the mainland, and she follows him. The two settle in Edinburgh where he finds that his bagic has been too convincing: in order to keep the girl charmed, he provides her with more illusions, more magic – a pair of lovely shoes here, an elegant coat and Audrey Hepburn-type dress there. Except, of course, this sort of magic can’t be spirited from top hats or people’s ears, so the illusionist has to take on one deadening job after another to keep the girl in gifts. His increasing absence from her life, which he never explains to her, leads to her finding magic in another man instead, a handsome young beau, and the disillusioned illusionist moves out one day while she’s gone, leaving a card: “Magicians do not exist.”
And that summarises the film’s intriguing tension: magicians don’t exist, it is all a charming illusion, the penny in your ear comes out of the magician’s sleeve or palm, cleverly hidden, and the fat, belligerent rabbit was in the hat all along. And yet, and yet… The film, like its sad hero, is all about the charm of illusion, it magics us away to a time and place that is better, more charming than reality. It creates people that never existed, an Edinburgh that never was, and its touches of the real – the film idealises but does not Disneyfy – only add to the spell.
At the end, the illusionist acknowledges that there is no such thing as magic, and pretending that there is creates false expectations, hope and illusions of the dangerous kind: the shimmering red shoes, the beautiful dress, even the crayon miraculously regrown after it had been worn to a stump, act as gateway illusions. He is right: magicians do not exist. The film shows this – in 70 minutes of beautiful, touching magic.