Magicians Do Not Exist: The Illusionist (2010)

I stumbled upon The Triplets of Belleville by accident upon purchasing a copy at one of the many rental stores that has went out of business in the past few years.  Not knowing what to expect, I was taken back by the surreal beauty and existential ennui that engulfed Sylvain Chomet's cinematic world.  So when I heard that he was adapting a Jacques Tati play into an animated film, I was elated.  I expected a brilliant piece of animation that would have me gasping with delight at its grandiose composition and zany subtleties.  The Illusionist gave me those expectations full force, however, what I was not expecting was an achingly tragic movie.  I assumed without reading any synopsis that The Illusionist would be completely comic and slapstick and from the beginning this proved true, yet by the films closing the viewer is left in such a state of existential despair that would have the most stalwart of people questioning their purpose in life.  The Illusionist is a masterpiece of animation that captures an idea and identity magnificently, and Chomet stands beside Miyazaki as one of the few animators whose work truly transcends the world of children's movies into a much more mature and darkly tinted place.

The Illusionist opens with black and white imagery of a magician executing tricks masterfully implying a man whose days of popularity are antiquated, this notion is quickly affirmed by cutting to present day imagery in color displaying the magician performing to a much smaller crowd and having little success with his act.  His inability to attract audiences and perform efficiently leads to his dismissal from the theater and his subsequent traveling to perform at various venues throughout Europe.  Performing in the face of an ever changing audience, which is exemplified by a rock group whose lead singer does nothing more than grunt into a microphone and roll around on the ground, the magician seeks an audience at a party.  Despite having very few people pay attention to his tricks, the magician is able to impress a drunken Scotsman who invites him to perform at a pub in his hometown.  The town the magician visits is very rural and is celebrating the introduction of electricity on the same night as the magician's performance.  Given their rather mundane lives, the townsfolk become captivated with the magicians performance, particularly a bar girl named Alice, who sees the magician as a procurer of valuable items.  Infatuated with the magician, Alice sneaks onto the ferry with the magician who takes her under his wing out of what appears to be guilt.  Viewers are now introduced to the rather sad life of the magician who lives in a small one-bedroom apartment whose other tenants are also performers.  Alice, assuming that the magician can create items out of nothing, hints at desiring various clothing pieces, to which the magician abides out of fear of failing the girl's imagination.  Eventually Alice's demands become larger than the magicians ability to produce and he must sell himself to corporate exploitation in order to gain money.  Despite continuing to provide her with gifts, Alice decides to pursue a romance with a young man across the street.  Discovering their relationship, the magician leaves in despair and simply offers Alice a note that states, "magicians do not exist."  The magician, Alice, and even the viewers have come to realize that the small magic of the world to which they hold dear is simply an illusion and that once this is discovered they can do little but live a jaded life.

The Illusionist did a very interesting thing to me.  It caused me to question what constitutes comedy.  Prior to The Illusionist I found it quite simple to divide comedies into either slapstick low key comedy and philosophical high art dark comedy.  The Illusionist, however, is both of these comedy styles from beginning to end, never failing to cause the viewer to laugh and suffer simultaneously.  At first, I wanted to place the blame for this comedic gesture on French sensibility, but I found The Illusionist to exist as something far different from even Godard's most politically fueled comedy.  It seems as though Chomet, and to the same extent Tati, wanted viewers to laugh at the tragedy of human nature.  The film posits that reality sucks really really bad, but if you cannot laugh at it then living in the tragedy becomes unbearable.  This unbearable nature is shown through the clown character who attempts to commit suicide only to be stopped when Alice offers him a bowl of soup.  The clown, as the film implies, had lost his ability to laugh and it was in that moment that he almost lost his ability to live.  In fact, it is only the Scotsman whose character remains happy at the films closing, yet even his jovial nature is a direct result of alcohol.  I guess this is all really my personal ranting, but the film works for contemporary society, because economically speaking the world is terrible and Chomet is reminding us that laughing is the only way to deal with it, because if we cannot do that the crisis becomes unbearable.

I found The Illusionist to be far superior to Triplets of Belleville and I cannot recommend it enough.  I was fortunate enough to see it projected on film, but I am sure the blu-ray will garner a similar experience.


  1. You nailed this movie. Bang on the nose. It's a great, great picture, but ohmygod don't watch it when you're down.

    1. Well thanks Freder, I am glad you agree. It is really a stunning picture that happens to also be wholly depressing. Although, it is lifting from a Tati script so even his most absurd films tend to take a turn for the dreary.