Sylvain Chomet's melancholy, mostly wordless animated adaptation of an unproduced script by the great French comic Jacques Tati has received its share of criticism, mostly revolving around the film's interpretation of Tati's enigmatic creative intentions. The primary point of contention: Did Tati author this deceptively lighthearted fable---which concerns a traveling magician and the young woman he takes under his wing---as a love letter to his legitimate daughter (Sophie Tatischeff) or as an apology to his illegitimate one (Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel)? The controversy makes for a fascinating behind-the-scenes story---one that adds an extra wrinkle to the film and seems, as family matters often do, to have no easy resolution.
On its surface, The Illusionist (Chomet's follow-up to The Triplets of Belleville) appears to be a Sophiecentric version of the material (there's an end-credit dedication to her, and the eponymous main character bears the name Tatischeff). But look closer and you'll see that a disturbing ambiguity runs under every pluck at the heartstrings. The magician himself is drawn to resemble Tati and the daughter-by-proxy is adorably bashful. Yet once they arrive at a run-down artists' hotel in Edinburgh, Chomet counterpoints the tenderness with bracing bitterness. To support the girl's many fancies, Tatischeff takes on various odd jobs---a surrogate parent caught between sentiment (wanting to give his child everything) and harsh reality (knowing that he must inevitably disenchant her). Chomet builds this beguiling symphony of sadness to a poignant finale that does ample justice to the many layers of Tati's tale, both in text and out.
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