Fatherly regret in a poignant “The Illusionist”

Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist” is a charmingly poignant movie, of a comedy genre that peeps into the lives of single gentlemen, confirmed bachelors who are socially inept or accident-prone but, at least in this case, not nerds. For some, it will serve as an introduction to a classic French character, Monsieur Hulot, who was surely the cinematic ancestor of Mr. Bean, Jerry Lewis’ crazy assorted misfits or the Pink Panther series’ Inspector Clouseau.

Chomet, who directed the delightful 2003 “The Triplets of Belleville” (Les Triplettes de Belleville), came upon this script by way of that very movie. His desire to use clips from “Jour de Fete” in “Let Triplettes” led him to reach out in 2000 and contact Jacques Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff who was in charge of her deceased father’s estate (Jacques Tati died in 1982).  Tatischeff was so delighted by his storyboards, she expressed a desire to have Chomet make an animated feature film out of an unproduced film her father had written, presumably for himself and perhaps Tatischeff, “The Illusionist.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Tatischeff died in 2001 before she could actually send the script, meet or even directly speak with Chomet, but the estate honored her request. While Chomet was apparently not eager to produce someone else’s work, especially one about a much beloved character created in the 1950s by Tati, Monsieur Hulot. Yet he loved the story and by making a few changes (a chicken became a much more lovable rabbit and the city became Edinburgh, Scotland instead of Prague), Chomet has brought to life a moving homage to Tati’s Hulot as well as fatherhood.

It’s said that “The Illusionist” was inspired by Tati’s regret over not having spent enough time with his daughters–either Sophie (his youngest) as Chomet has commented or his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, an illegitimate child he reportedly abandoned. You can read Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald’s letter of explanation to Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert explaining that part of the controversy.

Certainly this movie will strike a chord in fathers everywhere and in the lonely. Tati’s Hulot is a gawky, tall man with a thickening middle. His pants are too short, he always seems to be in the wrong place and will inevitably do the wrong thing at whatever job he undertakes.

Hulot is not a misanthropic crusty old curmudgeon. He’s a kindly sort. Hulot is well-meaning and his adventures are similar to the Japanese TV and movie series  “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo” (“It’s Tough Being a Man”) captured the hearts of the Japanese with the down-on-his luck Tora-san roaming from town to town encountering a woman who needs his help and with his help, the woman is saved but in the arms of another man while Tora-san moves on.  Starring Atsumi Kiyoshi and directed by Yamada Yoji from 1969-1995, that series had 49 films.

Tati’s output was much more modest; he only directed and appeared as Hulot only four movies: “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” in 1953, “Mon Oncle” in 1959, “Playtime” in 1967 and “Trafic” in 1971.  “Les Vacance” (“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”) was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. “Mon Oncle” (“My Uncle”) won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and a special prize at Cannes.

“The Illusionist” uses clips from “Mon Oncle” and the main character, Jacques Tatischeff, is, without a doubt, Chomet’s version of Mr. Hulot. Tatischeff is Tati’s full original surname.

In this case, the illusionist is a French magician who is modestly talented, but he had been playing a circuit of music halls that increasingly are becoming venues for rock and roll bands. Variety acts like clowns and ventriloquists are no longer needed and the illusionist is forced to play farther afield and to smaller and smaller audiences. Given a card by a drunken Scottish man, he follows up, ending up in a small town in Scotland where he meets a poor chambermaid named Alice. Seeing her genuine appreciation for his magic, he notices her shoes are shoddy and buys her some red Mary Janes. Alice runs away with the magician and he attempts to provide for her, working long hours only to be cheated.

If Hulot easily won over his nephew in “Mon Oncle,” he did not win many friends amongst the grownups. Would his nephew adore Hulot as an adult? Most likely not unless the nephew was willing to weather the social pressure to ignore an old man and treasure fond memories. At least for a period, one feels the uncle would be definitely in the cold. In the same way, Alice, too, grows up and quickly goes from bobby socks to stockings, influenced by the women she sees in the city of Edinburgh.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if this movie was inspired by Sophie Tatischeff or Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel…not for the audience, many of whom will be unfamiliar with Jacques Tati’s work.  Chomet has made it his tale, part homage to Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and to the lonely rootless men who perform acts of kindness even when the world has been unkind to them and their dying professions and to fathers and those with fatherly bent who go from supermen to superfluous in their beloved daughters or surrogate daughters’ lives.

For us, the saddest part, was not the fate of the girl, or the man, but of the cantankerous white rabbit who found no wonderland now that the illusionist had confessed there was no magic in the world.

The movie, “The Illusionist” has opened up already at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles and will open at the Pasadena Playhouse on 14 January 2010.

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