BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
One of the three films nominated this year for Oscar’s Best Animated Film, “The Illusionist” is a bittersweet, melancholy tale about the frailties of life. Nearly devoid of dialogue and containing mature content far beyond the grasp of children, it is a Chaplinesque ode to man’s gradual descent into irrelevance as we age and become expendable.
As he did with his previously Oscar nominated gem “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003), director Sylvain Chomet strikes gold with a beguiling story about largely insignificant people and things. Here, we find an aging magician traveling from Paris to England in the middle of the 20th Century as he tries to find an audience for his increasingly out of date act. He travels only with his small bag of tricks, which includes an angry little rabbit whose response to being repeatedly and reluctantly pulled out of a hat is to continually bite his master when ever given a chance.
Invited to Scotland to perform, the magician meets a poor, naive waif at his boarding house. Moved by her sad plight, he nobly buys her a lovely pair of red shoes to replace her worn out work boots. Entranced by this magnanimous older stranger, the young woman sneaks onboard his train as he leaves, and what ensues is a poignant father/daughter relationship that will warm your hardened heart.
But please be warned again that while this is an animated film, it is not a movie for children. Rather, it is a far more realistic take on the grim realities of the aging process than any live action movie has touched this past year, most notably the one-dimensional “Rabbit Hole” and the cynical “Another Year.”
What Mr. Chomet brings us in a heartbreaking fashion is not just a story of a magician whose better days are seen in life’s rear-view mirror, but also a look at his artistic friends who are facing emotional desolation. In particular, there is an alcoholic clown whose inability to find work leads him to toy with delusions of suicide. Even more tragic is a gentle ventriloquist and his foolish dummy, the former left in a gutter begging for coins while the latter is seen in the window of a thrift shop offered for sale at a cut-rate price.
What our magician does momentarily find is a reason to care again in the person of the young girl depending on him for support. For a moment life’s unfairness becomes tolerable as he watches her innocent joy as he buys her a beautiful little dress and high-heels, something that allows her to gain a bit of social self-respect. However, the combination of a sleazy agent embezzling most of his money and dwindling job opportunities eventually become more than he can handle.
When he observes his surrogate daughter in the company of a young man, the magician knows that it is time to disappear and to leave her to make of life what she can. In a defining moment of the film, she comes home to their apartment, only to find him gone. She opens a note containing a significant sum of money left on the kitchen table, which reads, “There are no magicians.” Indeed, Mr. Chomet seems to be telling this young woman, along with the audience, that life is what you make of it, and you should not be sitting back hoping for some miracle to save you from your plight.
As we see our magician leaving town, he pauses in the country where he releases his faithful angry rabbit into a meadow of other rabbits. As he pauses and then walks away, the rabbit runs after him to the top of the hill, stopping to watch his master slowly disappear. It was a haunting scene, and one that I am no more likely to forget than I will that heartbreaking moment in “The Day of the Dolphins” (1973) when George C. Scott forced his two trained dolphins to leave him and escape to the sea.
“The Illusionist” is a startlingly interesting film. Containing some beautiful artistry, it is a poignant depiction of the vagarities of growing old. What is the meaning of this crazed existence? Are our lives no more significant than rocks that we skip across a lake, some of which hop a few more times than others until inevitably disappearing into oblivion beneath the lake’s surface? Are we all destined to live out our years in increased loneliness and isolation? Will anyone really care what we did for a living, much less the contributions we tried to make to society?
While I don’t pretend to know the answer to those questions, having seen “The Illusionist,” I do know one thing. Rabbits deserve to live their lives in the woods, not being pulled by their ears out of a hat.