Jacques Tati is to the French as Charlie Chaplin is to the U.S. Although perhaps he means more to them, as we tend to forget about creative people unless they throw up on the arresting officer, go into rehab, have a child out of wedlock with someone who works as a mechanic, or have a reality television show built around them. We tend to have a little less sense of history than the French, and we’re damn proud of it.
Tati created several landmark films, among them Mon Oncle, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, and the celebrated (but little seen) Play Time. He wrote them, directed them, acted in them. His character, M. Hulot, is as famous as the little tramp of Chaplin. They were made during the era of sound but they are remarkable because dialogue is used almost as background noise, with only the occasional word coming through clearly to propel the story. Action and gesture, the visual domain of the camera and the pantomimes, are the main narrative tools.
The Illusionist is from a screenplay that Tati wrote but never had the chance to direct. It is apparently autobiographical and meant to assuage the guilt he had at working so hard and not spending time with his children. He started late and only made six full-length films, but those were enough to get him named number 46 in a list of the 50 greatest directors by Entertainment Weekly.
The main character is an itinerant magician, a master of illusion, a theatrical gypsy, pushed to the outskirts of show business by drunk and glittering rock and roll bands. He plays a pub in a small Scottish town and is befriended by a young girl who is completely absorbed by the magic he creates. She becomes his assistant, his daughter, and his constant companion. But he works too hard, she eventually grows up and meets a man, and they lose the connection that meant so much. Life moves on, dispensing loss and change.
This is a film that should not be missed, as its sweet, gentle, knowing sentiment and civility is being lost in the continual shift of popular culture.
The Illusionist opens Friday February 25 at the Oriental Theatre.