The Illusionist — Jacques Tati’s Last Gasp

Jacques Tati’s last written work is a poignant and charming tale of a bygone era.

Graphics and design by Betty Woodhouse (IG:

Throughout his many years as a filmmaker, Jacques Tati was known for his offbeat comedies, many of which were measured in equal parts slapstick and refined social commentary. 2010’s long-delayed The Illusionist sticks ruthlessly to this vision, perhaps tipping the scale more in favour of critiquing society at the expense of comedy.

Completed as a script in the 1950s, the film concerns a struggling illusionist who, after performing in an isolated village in Scotland, meets an adolescent girl who mistakes his performances for real magic. Together, they travel across Europe as the illusionist desperately searches for work in a world that is leaving him behind. Inspired by his years as a mime, Tati’s semi-autobiographical character represents the decline of an era that has since slipped through our grasp — a time when comedy was still charming and magic was real because you couldn’t prove it wasn’t.

Director Sylvain Chomet was sure not to execute The Illusionist as just another wagging finger of disapproval in the face of modern cinema; Tati’s usual eccentricity is scattered through the animated feature, and makes good use of a host of bizarre and wonderful characters that give its narrative a quirky stroke. Packed with emotion and needed moments of hilarity, the Illusionist shines when it’s at its most comically harrowing.

As we watch the illusionist suffer through degrading jobs to feed his travelling companion’s belief in magic, we come to feel more nostalgic for a bygone era that is so far removed from our times that many viewers may not relate to it at all. We begin to understand Tati’s frustration at the changing times… after all, come the 1960s the world was transforming into an age of new technology and the suspension of disbelief that a Tati film required no longer satisfied audiences. Although he continued to make films throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the filmmaker was already painfully aware of what was to come — and The Illusionist carries the weight of this realisation perfectly.

The animation is impeccable, and ensures that fans of both filmmakers will be satisfied with the end result. Broad colours paint the streets of London and Edinburgh (where the majority of the film is set), and beautiful fluid brushstrokes allow our characters to embark on slapstick adventures throughout a forgotten time. The writing remains steadfast in its intelligence — never losing sight of its purpose — but remains an enjoyable journey that places emotive commentary and foolish comedy gold on the same podium.

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This article is produced in conjunction with Cinephemera, a film review blog that combines words with graphics. Cinephemera is by Betty Woodhouse and Connor Cudmore.

Words by Connor Cudmore

Graphics and Design by Betty Woodhouse

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