EIFF 10: The Illusionist Review

By Stuart Wood 2010-06-21 14:39:18discussion comments
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In the run-up to EIFF much has been made of The Illusionist and the work of the Scottish animation artists who contributed to it. But while The Illusionist is undoubtedly absolutely stunning to look at, it is a little more unkempt when it comes to the story it wants to tell.

The illusionist in question is Tatisheff, whose simple magic act is increasingly out of favour in France during the dying days of the 50s. Forced to look further and further afield for work, he eventually finds himself in Scotland, where he attracts the interest of a na´ve young girl named Alice, who is convinced that the Frenchman's magic is the real deal. Stowing away as the magician moves on, Alice follows Tatisheff back to Edinburgh where the young girl experiences city life for the first time and the old magician tries to come up with new ways to keep Alice from discovering his tricks are just simple sleight of hand.

Part of the movie's problem may lie in the its sparse use of dialogue. None of the characters speak beyond occasional mumbles in either French, Gaelic or English. WALL-E showed how it was possible to convey the building of a relationship between two characters with very little dialogue. The Illusionist never seems to manage to hit those notes. The father-daughter relationship that is supposed to build between the two never feels fully realised, which leads to a major sticking point-- we can be left with the impression that the poor old magician is being used (unwittingly or not) by the young girl. Him, slaving away at increasingly degrading menial jobs while struggling to keep his own magic show, going all to pay for Alice's extravagant starry-eyed wants. It's clearly not the intent, but intent doesn't matter when such dangerous interpretations are left possible.

As a pure spectacle, The Illusionist is a triumph of traditional ink and paint animation. From the bustling streets of Edinburgh to the misty highlands, the film is beautifully realised and the whole thing was clearly a labour of love for all involved. The results are fantastic but they can't cover the weaknesses in the story.

The original screenplay from which The Illusionist was adapted was written as a personal olive branch from reknowned French director Jacques Tati to his estranged daughter. Here, adapted some 30 years later by someone else, it is clear that the personal investment the project originally had has been disappointingly lost somewhere in translation.

For more coverage from the Edinburgh International Film Festival click here.
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