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Film review: THE ILLUSIONIST, from Built for Speed

The illusionist is a bittersweet French animated film based on a script by famed comic movie maker Jacques Tati.  It tells the story of a middle-aged French sideshow magician who embarks on a forelorn tour of Britain in the early 60’s. There he meets a poverty-stricken young woman whom he takes under his wing.  As she begins to flourish and explore new horizons, his dreams of becoming a great magician appear to crumble.

Having initially threatened us with quirky sight gags and God forbid, animated mime, it quickly switches to a story of moving pathos and humanity. The film is often quite touching as it explores the nature of illusion, how we present ourselves to others and how we deceive ourselves.   The moment when the reality collapses in on one character is particularly affecting.

The story is told through a vivid story book style similar to that used in The Triplets of Belleville which is a welcome relief from the plastic slickness of CGI animation so prevalent today.  There’s very little dialogue which takes some getting used to but ultimately gives the film a quiet dignity.    The film is more concerned with tone and character than plot developments so some may find the story limited. There are, however, some interesting allusions to the cultural and political events of the early 60’s such as the emergence of the Beatles and the cold war.  There’s also a Tati-related in joke as the magician actually goes to a screening of Tati’s Mon Oncle .

Although mostly charming, some of the characterisations are demeaning, for example,  Scottish men are often portrayed as aggressive drunks while the members of a British invasion type rock band are depicted as very stereotyped gays.

Despite a few qualms, the intelligence, wit and emotional depth of the story wins out making this is a funny, sad and cleverly made film.

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