Alice and the Illusionist in the movie "The Illusionist," directed… (Sony Pictures Classics )
Nearly three decades after his death, French comic actor Jacques Tati has returned to the silver screen — starring in a movie he wrote that was never produced.
If this sounds like sleight-of-hand, it is, in a way: The film is aptly titled "The Illusionist," and it has been brought to life by the imagination and sensitivity of French animator Sylvain Chomet, who is best known for 2003's "The Triplets of Belleville."
The hand-drawn, 2-D "Illusionist" opened Saturday and may give Pixar's "Toy Story 3" a run for its money this awards season. The New York Film Critics Circle named it 2010's best animated film, and it has also been nominated for a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice award and five Annie awards.
"The Illusionist," Chomet said, is "kind of a letter from the sky from Jacques Tati."
Tati, who died in 1982 at age 75, was France's crown prince of comedy. Tall and gangly with an aquiline nose, he was a professional rugby player who found success as a mime in French music halls in the 1930s and '40s. In 1949, Tati wrote, directed and starred in his first feature, "Jour de Fete," a comedy about an inept rural postman who makes deliveries by bicycle.
His career took off with 1953's "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," in which he introduced his alter ego: Monsieur Hulot, a socially inept, clueless man who always wore a raincoat and hat and was rarely seen without his umbrella or pipe.
Tati played Hulot in 1958's "Mon Oncle," which won the foreign-language film Oscar; 1967's elaborate "Playtime"; and 1971's "Trafic." His movies had very little dialogue, relying instead on brilliant gags and pitch-perfect sound effects to bring the stories to life.
"The Illusionist," written between 1956 and 1959, is far more dramatic and bittersweet than Tati's feature comedies. The plot revolves around a struggling magician who travels with his rather angry rabbit from city to city to perform.
In a pub, he meets an innocent teenager named Alice, who is mesmerized by the illusionist's tricks and believes he is really creating magic. She stows away on a ship that is taking the magician to a distant city and soon they become de facto father and daughter. Living in a boarding house for performers, Alice keeps the house while he toils at a local theater. But as the illusionist gets older, Alice begins to grow up and finds herself tiring of the magician.
Chomet, 47, has long had an affection for Tati. In 2000, when he was working on "Belleville," the director thought it would be fun to have a scene where the eponymous triplets — former music hall performers — watch a clip from "Jour de Fete" on TV. The film's producer sought permission from Tati's daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, who was running her father's estate. Chomet sent pictures and a set design of "Belleville," and Tatischeff agreed to allow the clip in the film.
Tatischeff never met or spoke directly to Chomet, but she was so thrilled with his storyboards from "Belleville," she wrote and told him she was interested in having him bring "The Illusionist" to life as an animated film. (She didn't want another actor to play the role her father had penned for himself.) Although she died in 2001 before she could send Chomet the script, the estate complied with her wishes and gave him the text.
The animator didn't want to fall in love with the screenplay. "I wasn't expecting to do something on someone else's work," he said by phone from his home in the south of France. "If it was good, then I'll have to find a way to find an excuse not to make it. But it wasn't just good, it was something I really wanted to do. It was such a beautiful and simple story and that animation would be able to make it work. I fell in love with it."
Tati fans will undoubtedly remark on how well Chomet has captured the comic's appearance and style in the film. Not only does the character look like Tati, the movie has scant dialogue in classic Tati fashion. Chomet relies on sound effects and the evocative musical score, which he wrote, to invigorate the tale. He imbues the magician and Alice with so much emotion and realism, it's not difficult to embrace their story. And to top it off there's a brief clip from "Mon Oncle" in the film.
But Chomet did not adhere unwaveringly to Tati's script. In the original, Alice was more of a young woman than a girl. "She looked very much like Brigitte Bardot," he said. If he had kept that dynamic, he added, "it wouldn't have been this kind of innocence. In the earlier script, the young woman was a bit naive but because she was older, she could have sounded a bit dumb as well. I made the film a bit more a story between a daughter and a father."
Some have speculated that "The Illusionist" is an expression of Tati's guilt about his relationship with his illegitimate and estranged child, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, who lives in northern England. But Chomet pooh-poohs the notion.