I’ve spent the last week and a bit attending to one of my annual traditions: enjoying the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Among the many movies I managed to fit in there were, unsurprisingly a number from the comics and SF influenced end of films – mostly from the independent end of the pool – and, of course, some great animation. And since Wim’s been talking about The Illusionist, which has just opened in Europe and since it was the opening night gala movie let’s start with that.
Regular readers will know that I’m a huge admirer of Sylvain Chomet, who brought us the brilliant Bellevile Rendezvous, with its Scarfe-influenced characters and that I’ve been following the progress of his new animated feature as it came together in an Edinburgh studio. Rather appropriately, since much of the film is set in the Scottish capital. Adapted from an unused script by the great Jacques Tati (truly one of world’s cinema’s greats, easily up there in my book with Keaton), we follow Tatichef (another Tati reference), a tall, ungainly stage magician, struggling in 1950s Paris, so he takes himself off to London, only to find even less success there – old theatrical acts are out of fashion, the hip, young crowds of the post-war world want screaming rock’n’roll (cue some brilliant pastiche of 50s rock acts). Looking around for another gig to pay the rent an encounter with a (naturally drunk) Scotsman at a party leads to a booking in a wee village out on the islands off the west coast of Scotland, where he meets a young lass who, convinced he is a real magician, follows him to Edinburgh, where again Tatichef goes through a variety of gigs to try and get past in a world where his kind of act is now old-fashioned and no longer in demand.
As with Belleville Rendezvous, however, the story is only part of the enjoyment – the visual aspect is another, from the OTT comedy of the pelvis-swinging rock bands who steal Tatichef’s audience to a wonderfully drawn array of secondary characters (most notably the short ventriloquist). And then there are the landscapes; when the film moves to Scotland the artwork for the scenery is simply gorgeous (as indeed it is in real life), from the steam train thundering northwards to the boat to the islands, where of course it, being Scotland, is raining. And as the boat approaches the island and castle, in a scene paying homage to Tintin’s Scottish visit (although with a bit more visible under the kilt!), the rain stops and sunlight filters through gaps in the clouds creating the shimmering, golden dappled light effect anyone who’s been to Scotland has no doubt seen and it’s beautifully done.
The arrival in 50s Edinburgh is similarly beautiful and romantic, the steam train pulling into Waverley Station in its deep cutting between Old and New Town, landmarks surrounding it. As with Paris and New York in Belleville it isn’t an exact replica of the city but an idealised version, easily recognisable as Edinburgh (the Castle, the Scott Monument, Jenner’s, Balmoral, the rearing bulk of Arthur’s Seat) but a sort of magical, fantasy version of the city and again Chomet recreates the constantly changing quality of light we enjoy in Edinburgh, to quite beautiful effect. Okay, obviously I am totally biased here – being both an admirer of Chomet’s work and since I’m lucky enough to have Edinburgh as a home. If you know the city you will love the depiction of it that Chomet and his artists have created. And if you don’t then you will probably fall in love with it – as he did with the city – and want to see it for yourself; he’s talked about the changing quality of light in Scotland and how it inspired him, how it changes everything (it does, the same scenes are endlessly refreshed and changed a little) and there are some scenic passages which are clearly a love letter to the city.
(Sylvain Chomet on stage at the Festival Theatre with the EIFF’s Hannah McGill at the opening night gala screening of The Illusionist at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)
For all that beauty though and for the comedic elements – and they have given the cartoon Tatichef a wonderfully physical, very Jacques Tati feel – there is a strong melancholy running through The Illusionist. The young, naïve girl is lovely and obviously a little bit of company and sunshine in the older Tatichef’s life, but at the same time it serves to show that he is much older and that he has little to show for his lifetime of efforts but an act that no-one wants anymore, no home, no wife, no children. Her childlike belief that he actually is a real magician is touching, but it’s also an impossible image for Tatichef to live up to (and he tries so hard to make her happy) and something will have to give at some point. Throw in the complication of a young girl turning into a young woman and starting to notice boys (including a character who has more than a passing resemblance to a very young Sean Connery) and you begin to suspect that perhaps this won’t be as upbeat as Belleville. But over all that there’s the sheer beauty of the visuals – from the Flying Scotsman steaming in Waverley Station to a dizzying aerial spectacle of Edinburgh’s astonishing landmarks rotating below us. There’s laughter and sadness, often at the same time, some wonderful characters and above all some gorgeous artwork you can lose yourself in. You want to see it.
The Illusionist is out now in France and is expected in the autumn in the UK and winter in the US. Next from the Film Fest: geeking out with The People Versus George Lucas, the lonesome cowboy Lucky Luke delivers with both barrels, comics-style crime fighters in York, zombies in Athens and there are monsters on the Mexican border.