Once upon a time there was a film character by the name of Mr. Hulot. Created by the French auteur Jacques Tati, Mr. Hulot (or Monsieur Hulot as he would be in his native land), was a hapless, but quite genteel pipe-smoking fellow with a habit of clumsy tomfoolery. First appearing in the 1953 film M. Hulot's Holiday, and subsequently re-appearing in Mon Oncle, Playtime and Trafic, this character has endeared itself into the sentimental hearts of cinephiles worldwide. Why bring up a character that hasn't appeared on film since 1971 you may ask. Good question, but a question nonetheless with an obvious answer - at least once one has had the privilege to have seen Sylvain Chomet's quaintly sentimental latest work of cinematic animation, The Illusionist.
Based on an unfilmed screenplay that Tati had written in the sixties and had set aside (opting instead to make Playtime) and really an homage on Chomet's part to both Tati and his enduring M. Hulot, The Illusionist is, animated or not, the closest thing to the feel of Tati's woebegone days as anything one could imagine. Telling the story of the titular magician (a hand-drawn dead-ringer for the aforementioned M. Hulot), eking out the latter days of what is probably a long-saddened career, going from grim music hall to grim music hall - like a slowly dying vaudevillian - and the naive teenage girl who he takes on like a tragic father figure, Chomet's film plays out, in nearly wordless fashion, with both a fun-loving nostalgic charm and a maudlin pathos that combine to create a uniquely sublime experience.
Chomet's latest never quite reaches the heights of his brilliantly farcical 2003 film, The Triplets of Belleville (and allow me to boldly claim that film as not only the best animated film in recent memory, but one of the best animated films of all-time), with its jaunty yet haunting recurring melody, but its melancholy, yet oft-times humourous tale of the end and beginning of a life meeting for a fleeting moment upon the proverbial stage that is life, is exquisitely written (Tati, like his idol Chaplin, was a master at such empathetic, yet comic storytelling) and works as a subtly layered look at both the allure of the limelight (shown by the girl's wide-eyed enthusiasm) and the sadness, the desolation if you will, of the dashing of one's dreams (shown by the inevitable emptiness of the main character's vaudevillian compatriots).
And then there is Chomet's animation. Drawn in a style not often seen in these days of Pixar-driven CGI and 3D (which is a sad notation in and of itself and worthy of a whole other essay), Chomet's animation is, like choosing the most palatable wine to go with one's meal, the perfect artistic complement to the kind of storytelling the French auteur wants to give to us. Just like in Triplets, though on a more personal scale (Chomet seems to have put as much of himself in this story as Tati has), The Illusionist has a dreamy sense of reality that lends itself to such a work as this. In the end, it is good to have, ostensibly speaking, Mr. Hulot back on the screen after all these years, and what a perfectly complimentary tragicomic way to present him - in all his animated humanistic reverence. A tip of the Hulotian hat to Mr. Chomet. [02/20/11]