Each year since 1998, Beloit College has issued its “Mindset List,” which describes the social world of each incoming freshman class. I have long since lost the awe at how different the world is for those who are in college now than the world I grew up in. Still I enjoy looking at the list each year because it brings a bit of nostalgia, but with it also comes a bit of melancholy over the loss of what is, for me, “good old days.”
The Illusionist conjures up that blend of nostalgia and melancholy. Based on an unproduced screenplay by French comedian Jacques Tati (M. Hulot’s Holiday) and adapted by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), the animated film shows us what it is like to come to an end of an era. Set in 1959, a period which is probably one of the major cusps of the 20th Century, the film tells of a struggling magician (who looks very much like Tati) at the end of the age of vaudeville. He is being pushed aside by new forms of entertainment—rock and roll and television. He finds an odd gig here and there, but never much success. After one such job on a remote Scottish island, he is followed by a young chambermaid he has befriended.
Their relationship is somewhat undefined. He is kind to her. He buys her shoes, a coat, a dress—things that transform her little by little into a young lady. There is just a hint of Pygmalion in the undercurrent here. They live in what seems to be a rooming house for other vaudevillians, but they are all having a hard time as well. It is as if the world has left them all behind. In time each must give up or find a new way forward.
Like Tati’s films there is little dialogue—and what dialogue there is, is usually gibberish (a technique used by Chomet in Triplets). This often seems like a series of sketches strung together. Some of the sketches reflect the humor that Tati was known for. But the humor is always low key. There are occasional brief chuckles, but don’t expect to laugh out loud. And always, the humor is there to keep us from crying over the sadness that permeates these lives.
Chomet’s hand is also seen—not only by doing it in animation, but by creating a tone. In Triplets he created a somewhat frenetic feel. Here he presents the story in a languid manner that really fits the theme. In both films, much of how he produces the feel of the film is through the music. The Illusionist’s music is not quite as sorrowful, but it also isn’t uplifting.
The world often seems to move by way too fast. For many, the changes of life have piled up and reached the point that they feel it is no longer their world. I have to admit that I’ve reached a point in life that I can empathize with this magician. But I don’t think the film ends in hopelessness. Rather it gently reminds us that the joy we give to others may be the only joy that really endures.