John Chiang and I have been exchanging letters. He sending me one, me sending one to him, then back, then forth, and what does it all mean? It means that deep beneath the fiscal dysfunctions of a waning empire in its self-devouring stage, there are miniscule events, blockages in the capillaries of the body politic. Which is why John feels obliged in his guise as Controller of the State of California to send me a tax bill for $14.81. Which I duly pay online. After which John is kind enough to send me a refund for…you guessed it…$14.81. No one can say money isn’t circulating in the economy. John and I are certainly doing our bit. And it’s good to know that there is someone with the job title of controller. Important to be in control.
Sylvain Chomet appears utterly in control of ‘The Illusionist,’ which follows his incomparable ‘The Triplets of Belleville.’ Hand-drawn animation, remarkable encapsulations of styles and eras, European sensibilities…in this case, several…all rendered in a story that seems uncharacteristically rich and poignant for a cartoon. Uncomfortably poignant, if you are me. And perhaps it’s better if you aren’t, at least that’s how it seems today. For days later, at 3:45 this very morning, it came back to haunt me, ‘The Illusionist.’ Not that it didn’t haunt me at the time. And that’s the thing about haunting, you can run, but you can’t hide. And in fact, you can’t even run very long or far.
Relying on a bare minimum of dialogue, ‘The Illusionist’ could not tell a simpler story. There isn’t much to it. A French stage magician used to performing in what was left of variety shows in the late 1950s finds work harder and harder to come by. He tries Britain, hoping for an occasional job in the twilight of the music hall. A drunken Scot imports him to a West Highlands herring port to amuse the pub locals. Then the illusionist departs to seek work in Edinburgh…with a char girl trailing after him, convinced that he can really make rabbits, flowers and God knows what else appear in a hat. It ends sadly. It begins sadly. It progresses sadly. Which may explain why throughout its 80+ minutes, I kept looking at my watch. Unbearably sad, would be a better description.
And not, let me make it clear, unbearably boring. Far from it. For there are so many qualities to this vaudeville-type magic guy. His formality. His European mix of the self-contained and the socially aware. An ineffable courage, particularly as he finds himself in one railway carriage after the next, en route to nowhere in particular. Just life and it’s inexplicable fortune and misfortune shunting him backward and forward. Quite the antithesis of the American progress paradigm, which variously suckers and repels us, but nonetheless underlies our narratives. No, most of the film is occupied with Edinburgh. A place where chances and opportunities were sewn up long ago, though new times do bring an occasional new job, the firth and the Highlands compressing everything in the most tight and picturesque of ways. Until the magic-struck girl finds a boyfriend and the middle-aged performer finds himself broke and on another train.
Even in the earliest scenes, the old performer presenting his stage tricks to ever emptier houses, the sadness seemed overwhelming. He is too far gone in life. His wares no longer needed. No competition for showgirls with tits and tutus. Teddy boy bands and howling teenage girls. He can’t keep up with this, and he doesn’t even try, just keeps looking for some place he can perform. And so what? Why does this have such searing effects on me?
Something about loss. Life’s essential twilight experience. Or maybe my own perennial theme. Rejection. The performer’s nightly request for attention…spurned. Unwanted. And still trying. Leading to new places, new fresh starts. And more losses. This aspect of ‘The Illusionist,’ and it is only an aspect, so skewed my impressions of the film, that I may have lost, or only partly absorbed, the rest. Making the main line of plot development seem subordinate. Though it’s well worth considering now, the stage magician and the young girl following him to Edinburgh. What makes him buy her things at great expense and pretend that he has conjured them? The girl is young and credulous. And he? Perhaps he has finally found an audience. And if this is so, another level of poignancy comes oozing out of the screen. For she cannot appreciate his illusions, believing them to be the real thing. Which he may want to believe himself. But no, he just seems to want a bit of…applause. Good thing we have the tragicomic sensibility of Jacques Tati’s script or else we might dismiss these two as codependent.
Near the end our illusionist is stripped of every possible illusion, not that he had many to begin with. He sets his white rabbit free. Now that she is mated, he sets the girl free to be with her boyfriend. And what is his final note for? Who is it addressing, him or the girl? There is no magic, he writes. And in this tale in which survival dominates, and human generosity, even when reciprocal, brings no lasting buoyancy to the spirit…there certainly is no magic. Even though the film itself is utterly magical. In its design, in its conceit, in its ur-fabular storytelling.
All of which leaves me watching the clock, wondering when this excruciating story, for all its beauty, will end. Which slightly surprises me. I thought I had more of a stomach for sad. More acceptance of loss. Except that I have watched with more than interest as a friend has gone about working with a nonprofit that anticipates, and tries to avert, suicides. He has been tracking a man, a guy on the edge of homelessness, who says he wants to end it all. And who also says he wants to be left alone. Should one honor this request? Or err, possibly, on the side of relentlessly pursuing the man, leaving messages, even bugging him with the simple fact that someone does care. That no matter how much he shoves people away, people remain. No one gives up on him, even if he gives up on them. But my focus is on the volunteer, my friend. He has invested a lot in trying to save this man. He may fail. Just as human connections can, and do fail, despite our best hopes and efforts. Divorce. Death. Loss. Ties get severed, and something in me has never accepted this. One of the worst, most brutal, and certainly most recent severings having occurred in my own bedroom, the deathbed of my wife. They say it takes years to get over such a thing. Patience I must tell myself. Give it a few years, then try ‘The Illusionist’ again.