Thou metst with things dying, I with things new-born. The latest film by Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist (2010) is a portrait of endings and beginnings. Based on an unproduced screenplay by the great French comic actor Jacques Tati, The Illusionist presents a stage magician in the 1950s at the end of his career. In France audiences for traditional entertainment are dwindling. In London our he is preceded, and supplanted, by a rock and roll band. At a garden party he is spotted by a drunken laird, who invites him to his Scottish island, where his act is warmly received in the pub. But even there the new is superseding the old, as electricity brings a light bulb and a juke-box (presumably also a threat to the jigs and reels, which seem to be danced only by folk of a certain age). He forms an alliance with the girl Alice, who works at the pub, and she follows him to Edinburgh in search of a more glamorous life. The plot from there traces their father-daughter relationship in poignant detail.
Chomet is a wonderful artist and the greatest pleasures of this film are the delicate, affectionate renderings of Scottish islands and the townscapes of Edinburgh. The surreal brilliance of Belleville Rendezvous is replaced by a gentle, nostalgic atmosphere, accentuated by Chomet’s own music. There is a certain flatness to the main characters, but perhaps that is part of the point: the shy Gaelic girl and the fading Gallic entertainer are nobodies in the big city, lodgers in search of an identity. They are offset by more colourful characters - including a rather maudlin bunch of other entertainers at the end of their tether, who for some reason are all staying at the same hotel – and there are glimpses of Tati’s own comic magic, such as the scene in the garage. The Illusionist himself is a carefully observed portrait of Tati, and at one metanarrative point he walks into a screening of Mon Oncle. But as in Shakespeare’s romances, the light of comedy is surrounded by deep shadow. Together with the evident love for the world being portrayed in The Illusionist, there is a sense that it is all slipping away. Art, magic, apparently secure relationships, the brief glimpses of local fame: all are illusions, washed away by the relentless rain. Perhaps our common fate is to end performing our act on a stage, when no one is watching and the world has moved on; the illusionist finally manages his own retirement from the scene with grace and dignity, leaving Alice and the cantankerous rabbit to continue their stories without him.