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The Illusionist (2010): **

Directed by Sylvain Chomet

The Illusionist is a periodically charming, vaguely frustrating, and ultimately disappointing second film from Triplettes of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet.

The story behind the making of The Illusionist is almost a better story than the one in the film; originally written by classic French film mime/comedien Jacques Tati in 1956, it is now an animated film starring an animated version of Tati as the main character, the titular Illusionist. The film is mostly silent, except for a couple of sentences (in English in the version I saw) and some mumbled Scottish/Gaelic and French words.

It is important in a silent film that the action always be crystal clear. In Chomet’s Belleville it was; you could always tell what each character’s goals, motivations, and feelings were in pretty much every situation. But in The Illusionist so often I just could not fathom why the characters did some of the things they did; in extreme cases, I wasn’t even sure exactly what they did, which is never a good sign.

The main character is, by design, a rather inscrutable fellow. He is very stoic and does not seem to betray much emotion on his face, which makes him rather hard to read. We get hints here and there, but we never really feel what he thinks about this whole situation, since his reactions are so low-key and subdued. Why does he hide from the girl at one point? Is he embarrassed? Why doesn’t he let her in the car at another? Why does he set the rabbit free? Well, I know that one is kinda symbolic, but people in the real world never do things just becasue they’re symbolic; there needs to be a real reason behind people’s actions because it’s difficult to become emotionally involved with people who act arbitrarily.

There are several scenes that are extremely well done and full of charm, but mostly they have little to do with the plot. The scene where the Illusionist is worried that the girl has cooked his rabbit; the scene where he helps the acrobats paint a giant sign; some funny bits about the Illusionist being replaced by the gayest rock-and-roll band ever; the Illusionist stumbling into a movie theater showing one of Jacques Tati’s real, live-action films.

Charming though it was at points, I left the theater scratching my head a bit. I felt as though there was a good film in there, but that I had been given a puzzle with a handful of missing pieces and was expected to find the whole picture.

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