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In “The Illusionist,” Chomet’s Hat Tip to Tati

In "The Illusionist," Chomet's Hat Tip to Tati

This article was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of 2010 Berlinale. Sylvian Chomet’s “The Illusionist” hits theaters tomorrow, December 25.

Riding on a train from Paris to Cannes, Sylvain Chomet read Jacques Tati’s “The Illusionist.” The Oscar nominated animator and filmmaker immediately wanted to adapt Tati’s story into a film. Talking about the new movie earlier this week at the Berlinale, he noted, “It wasn’t what you’d call a script, it was more like a little novel.”

Set in the 1950s, Tati’s story looks at an aging man — Tati himself — and a young girl (he is said to have written “The Illusionist” for an estranged daughter). The older man, a traveling magician named Tatischeff, introduces the girl to the world at a time when a lot is changing.

Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff — a fan of Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville” — tapped Chomet to adapt the unproduced story into an animated film, but she died just four months later.

Talking about the film earlier this week at the Berlinale, Macha Makeïeff, who co-runs Les Films de Mon Oncle, preserving and promoting Tati’s work, noted that the new film completes a circle of work that rounds out a portrait of the late Tati.

The story, set mainly in Edinburgh, Scotland, takes place at the dawn of television and rock & roll, featuring a circus of live performers who are on their way out as audiences embrace new types of entertainment. With the film, Chomet has created more of an homage to Tati, rather than trying to replicate the French filmmaker’s work and create a movie that seems like Tati directed it. It’s a story infused with a mix of sadness, charm and humor as it looks back at a time of considerable change, offering a window into the ’50s. With very little dialogue — the French magician and the Scottish girl can’t communicate — the story unfolds in traditional pencil sketch animation.

The Gaelic girl whom discovers a wave of consumerism in “The Illusionist,” but she seems to believe that the older man can make her fabulous new world appear out of thin air. At the start of the story, she is cleaning the floors in a remote pub where Tatischeff performs. Through the illusionist, though, her eyes are magically opened to a new way of life and she follows him to the big city, even if she doesn’t realize the consequences of her cravings for new clothing and material goods. He secretly takes side jobs to maintain her illusion.

A scene from Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist.”

“In ‘The Illusionist’ we truly experience and see where Jacques Tati comes from and we see the fragile nature of that world,” Makeïeff explained. Chomet added this week that Tati would have been fascinated by animation because it allows so much control. “He was working like an animation director,” Chomet said.

“I think it’s really important that it’s released now because time has changed so much, fifty years after it was set,” Sylvain Chomet explained, “It might have seemed rather nostalgic then.” Continuing Chomet during the Berlinale press conference he added, “Things change but they don’t disappear completely,” he said, “This is not about the end of a world, it’s also about what old people can do and contribute.”

“For me, when I read the script, the first thing I saw is a very beautiful story between an aging man and a young girl who is becoming a women,” Chomet said, “They are on these two roads.”

EDITORS NOTE: While Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff gave Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist” and then died shortly thereafter, there is a claim by Tati’s estranged daughter about the film. As noted by an indieWIRE reader, the situation is detailed in a recent Guardian article.

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