Accomplished, beautifully crafted slice of melancholia.
Space Year Two Thousand and Three saw Sylvain Chomet fly in out of obscurity, wielding a wonderful Belleville Rendez-vous-shaped bat to bludgeon us with charming character design, left-field plotting and superb animation. Bar a short hand in Paris, je t'aime, it's been a long time since Chomet brought out the hitting stick, but he's now back with one big enough to open a film festival, it would seem.
Cynics would perhaps say that the decision of the Edinburgh Film Festival to have The Illusionist on Opening Night Gala duties may have been swung somewhat by the film's main setting, namely Edinburgh. But what do cynics know? Damn cynics.
The truth of it is that there's another very accomplished film in Chomet's offering, although one in tone that is vastly different from his earlier work. I'm perhaps getting ahead of myself. Kicking off in Paris in 1959, our titular Illusionist finds the audiences at the music halls dwindling, along with the payouts. Seeking greener pastures, he and his rabbit head off to London to attempt to further his career.
This doesn't go substantially better, as the times are a'changing just as much on the other side of the Channel. A fortuitous meeting with the most stereotypical Scotsman in animation history leads to a gig in a small Hebridian pub, where his act makes such an impression on a young teenage girl, Alice, that she decides to follow him when he leaves for Edinburgh, under the assumption that magic is real.
On finding a steady gig in a theatre, he continues his valiant efforts to stay relevant in a world that seems to be doing its best to obsolete him, and all of his music hall co-acts. Maintaining his profession and coping, in a guardian-like way, with the demands of a young girl turning into a young woman could well be too much for him to deal with.
As with Belleville Rendez-vous, this is told in an entirely minimalist way, with no real dialogue to speak of. The character design is beautiful, in Chomet's signature angular, unique, visually stimulating way. The backdrops are wonderful, and the story is touching.
There's no doubt that this is a very good film. However, in stark contrast to Belleville Rendez-vous, The Illusionist is quite, quite depressing. Perhaps that's going a little far, especially given the number of very nice and effective comic moments, but the general effusion of melancholia through these segments is almost overpowering, and the ending leans far more towards the bitter end of the bittersweet spectrum.
There's more than a place for this in cinema, and the general downbeat nature of the piece perhaps comes as a welcome change of pace in animation. Certainly Chomet shows he can ably handle a more delicate tone with skill.
Certainly, The Illusionist is worthy of having a great fuss made over it, and it's a far, far, far more worthy film to open a festival than, say, the uncompromisingly abysmal The Edge of Love. It's just not one that's going to put you in a party mood by the end of it.
Outside of a festival environment, is it worth seeing The Illusionist? Yes. Definitely. I can only hope this finds the same reasonably widespread audience that Chomet's last film did, and also that he doesn't wait so long to give us the next one.