29 January 2011

Behind the Illusioniste

Last night I saw The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet’s animated adaptation of an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay. It’s visually gorgeous. I was blown away by how well the movie rendered Edinburgh, and even the train ride north to that city. (It turns out a lot of the movie was made in Edinburgh.)

But the rest of the movie didn’t work for me at all. In several sequences I felt Tati would have come up with funnier and longer visual gags on the set. Even worse, the story suffered from gaping holes in the characters’ motivations. I didn’t dislike this Illusionist as much as The New Yorker, which complained about “cloying sentimentality”; many movies have cloyed more. But this one has nothing but sentiment to drive it because the characters’ emotions and desires don’t add up.

The Illusionist shows a French stage magician going to London to find work, then to a village in northern Scotland. A teen-aged chambermaid attaches herself to him, and they travel together to the Scottish capital, where he finds work in a music hall. They share rooms in a theatrical rooming-house for a while—all in a strictly father-daughter way. [SPOILER DEAD AHEAD] At the end of the movie, she becomes interested in a handsome young lug, and the older man sadly slips back to France.

It’s never really clear why the magician, scraping for cash, decides to keep buying clothes for the girl. As for her, she’s obviously more interested in the glamor of Edinburgh than in mopping floors in her little village—perhaps too obviously. Some summaries I’ve read say that she believes he’s a real magician, but she keeps pointing out clothes in shop windows, so she knows darn well where they come from.

There are moments in the middle of the movie where it looks like the girl is making the denizens of the theatrical boarding-house into one big happy artificial family—one possible dénouement. But that falls apart, shown particularly in the fate of a ventriloquist. Then the young lug comes along, with no link to anything else, and everyone goes their separate ways, even the magician’s rabbit.

I kept feeling like the scenario was dancing around a relationship that would make the main characters’ actions make sense. I could think of two possibilities:

  • The magician has somehow lost a daughter of his own. Taking care of the poor chambermaid fills that hole in him, but, like other fathers, he eventually has to let her go.
  • The magician and the girl are actually a sexual couple, but when the magician realizes they’re just using each other, he moves on. That scenario would bring a frisson of illicit sex, but it’s a French movie, after all.
I came home to Google for some story-behind-the-story, and discovered what the movie was missing. And, yes, there was illicit sex involved.

Apparently Chomet received Tati’s script from the trust that controls his copyrights, having had some brief correspondence with the comedian’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff before she died. He interpreted the script as Tati’s expression of love for Sophie, and also felt it expressed his love for his own daughter. Believing that Tati planned to play the lead, Chomet patterned his protagonist after the comedian, and dedicated the movie to Sophie Tatischeff.

However, it turned out (and Chomet probably learned of this while he had already started making the film he envisioned) that Tati also had an older daughter. He got her mother pregnant during WW2, then paid her off and ignored the child as she grew up. That mother came from Prague; Tati set his script in Czechoslovakia. If the comedian wasn’t imagining reconnecting with his abandoned daughter as he wrote this script in the 1950s, he could only have been in very deep denial.

The Telegraph revealed that backstory, and the Guardian filled out details. (By coincidence, that daughter settled in the north of England, rather close to Edinburgh.) Roger Ebert published a lengthy letter from one of the oldest daughter’s sons in his Chicago Sun-Times blog. However, I don’t recall seeing anything about that history in the New York Times or other periodicals I read before seeing The Illusionist.

The grandson also described elements of the script that aren’t in the version I saw:
…the young girl attracts the attention of a handsome young man who exposes the conjurer's magic as fraudulent, nothing more than cheap tricks, illusions created to entertain an audience. Unable to hold onto her affections once his charade has been exposed the script concludes with the conjurer disappearing off into the sunset free of his deceit having as he always known he would lost the affections of the young girl to youth and the vibrancy of the city once she was able to see beyond his theatrics.
If the original screenplay contained a scene about the young lug exposing the magician’s tricks, that was dropped from this production. It would have tied the fellow into the plot, though also made him less sympathetic (and thus interfered with the story’s sentiment).

I suspect Tati stopped working on this film, near the peak of his career, because what he’d put into it wasn’t coming together, and what he’d left out were the secrets he couldn’t afford to dig up.

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