“Magicians do not exist,” says Tatischeff, the titular illusionist, on a note to Alice, the young girl who followed him after she was mesmerized by the magician’s talents when he performed in a dinky but idyllic dive in Scotland. Sylvain Chomet’s film follows the lives of these two characters who are, judging by the melancholy animation, slowly tracing their route to a bitter end.
This sadness looms above the film, overseeing the daily lives of the broken personalities that inhabit the film’s world including a washed-up and beat-up clown and a depressed ventriloquist who masks his sadness by being boisterous and friendly. No matter how cheeky and vibrant the burst of imagery may seem, all of these cannot help but appear as magic trickery, dissolving into the background while the heavy air of melancholy pervades the film.
L’Illusioniste tackles dissolution bravely. As a magician in his twilight years, Tatischeff knows that his days of being a respected magician is over. He resorts to performing a second act to a loud, proto-Beatles band. The seats in his “shows” contain only a handful, maybe five or six people who have to be prodded to applaud. He also has to take in odd jobs just to pay the rent of their small hotel room. These travails hardly seem harrowing compared to the plights of other film characters but the slow degradation of Tatischeff’s days is enough to reduce you to tears.
L’Illusioniste is a cross between a bittersweet farewell to older forms of entertainment and a cautionary tale. The final scene, a shot of a theater house’s lights turning off, is a fitting end to a film which also happens to recall the life of French mime, director, and actor Jacques Tati, whose unproduced script is the basis of the film. Tati’s legacy, just like Tatischeff’s, remains to be the enchantment that he has cast over his audiences long after the curtains have closed.