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The Illusionist is practically wordless, but the visual story it tells will warm your heart before it breaks it. This Oscar nominee for best animated feature was written and directed by The Triplets of Belleville’s Sylvain Chomet, adapted from an unproduced screenplay by the late French director Jacques Tati. The work, about an aging and increasingly unemployable magician, is a sort of valentine to Tati, with the main character sharing his birth name and, in one of the film’s neatest touches, Tati’s great Mon Oncle actually playing onscreen when the magician runs into a theater.
But you don’t have to be familiar with Tati’s work to be charmed. The Illusionist begins in 1959 Paris, as Jacques Tatischeff (Jean-Claude Donda) battles with clanking repairmen to hold a restless audience’s attention while a stage curtain is repaired, delaying the performance of a smoking, sharp-shouldered chanteause. After Jacques’ dismal act he irritates his fellow performers and stagehands by chasing his runaway and temperamental bunny backstage. He hopes a stint in London will be better—Jacques takes any gig offered, no matter how far the city or how small the venue—but he plays to a nearly empty house after the shrieking fans of prancing boy-band opener Billy Boy and the Britoons spill outside to further drool over the group.
From rainy London it’s on to rainy Edinburgh (Chomet’s precipitation is a thing of beauty, all persistent mist), where Jacques picks up at least one admirer: Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a young girl working in a dingy pub where he performs. She peeks into his room while mopping the hallway; he’s soon buying her a pair of shiny red shoes to replace the falling-apart boots that are barely holding onto her feet. When Jacques leaves the pub to move into a hotel that hosts vaudevillians, Alice stows away and attaches herself to him, enchanted by the magician’s seeming ability to conjure coins and gifts out of air. He allows her to stay with him and, in a fatherly way, keeps trying to provide her with every storefront nicety she affixes her wide eyes on. But, of course, Jacques doesn’t obtain these things by magic. And when his regular gigs no longer provide, he starts moonlighting at whatever job he can find, keeping his overtime a secret lest Alice realize he’s just a regular guy.
Chomet’s animation is quite similar to the more upbeat Belleville’s, with exaggerated characterizations and muted colors often wrapped in sharp black outlines. There are happy little touches throughout, from the way Jacques’ rabbit nips and grumbles at passersby; to a trio of acrobats who bound the hotel stairs while crying “Up up up up up!”; to a clown who rinses soap off his face with a squirting flower when water won’t flow from his sink. Most beguiling, though, is Chomet’s ability to tell a story with few words, even fewer of them in English: When Alice and Jacques check into a single-bed room, for instance, he points to a couch and says, “Moi?—zzz —lé,” and both the Scottish girl and the audience understands.
Those delightful details make The Illusionist’s last chapter all the more bittersweet. It’s amazing how expressive Chomet can be when Jacques decides his jig is up; the downward bend of a confused bunny’s ears in one of the final scenes is gut-wrenching. Certainly more people have heard of fellow Academy Award nominee Toy Story 3, but this film proves Pixar-worthy in its storytelling, animation, and ability to move a viewer to tears.