Illusionist the great Tatischeff (Donda) is eking out a living in the music halls of France and England and supplementing his income at private dos. Travelling to the Scottish islands for one of these events, he meets a girl called Alice (Rankin) who is awestruck by his abilities and follows him to Edinburgh.
This must be the final nail in the coffin of those who claim that animation is only for kids. Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 film, Belleville Rendez-Vous, was a frothy, froggy story of espionage in the world of competitive cycling, bittersweet but filled with the sort of broad characters and dream logic of a child’s story. This, however, is a mature and near-wordless story of loss and grief and shattered illusions, where even the clowns contemplate suicide. That it is also funny and heartfelt takes this from downbeat oddity to dazzling magic trick.
The film’s story was written decades ago by genius French comedian Jacques Tati, he of M. Hulot’s Holiday and a string of almost-silent comedies that found absurdity and pathos in the minutiae of everyday life. Tati, apparently, considered this story too personal and shelved it for his lifetime, but Chomet has picked at his script and plays this, at least partly, as
a homage to the master. Our illusionist is called Tatischeff (Tati’s full name) and his long-legged, plump-bodied silhouette is based closely on the caricature on Tati’s posters. There’s even a strange moment of dissonance when the illusionist goes to see Tati’s Mon Oncle, perhaps a step too far when our hero’s every gesture is based closely on Tati, but one that is quite literally shrugged off as the illusionist goes on about his business.
His business, at least in the course of this story, is trying to survive in the dying days of the music hall, as obnoxious rock groups take over and a magician and his rabbit have to struggle to survive. Against this background he meets Alice, a young girl who’s convinced he’s a real magician and who he is reluctant to disappoint. But as she begs for gifts she’s convinced he can magically provide, he faces the harsh reality that there is little money coming in and no way to keep her illusions alive.
Played out against an impeccably-realised Edinburgh washed in watercolours and tinted in shades of tweed, and with witty little touches and echoes of films such as Local Hero, this feels like an elegy to a dying time, the illusionist a tragically sane Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of change as his world collapses around him.
Bittersweet, moving and utterly beautiful: a love letter to cinema and to Scotland.