|The Minorty Report on The
by David McReynolds
As I left the theater tonight I almost wanted to stop one of the others leaving
if they could make sense out of this, the final film from Jacques Tati. 'The
is based on a script by Tati, left unproduced at this death. Sylvain Chomet
the script and made it into an animated film ...
My first encounter with Tati's work was watching 'Mr. Hulot's Holiday', produced
in 1953. I saw it while I was still in California, and remember feeling the
film might actully be dangerous - at various points I was laughing so hard
I could not catch my breath, and could easily have given truth to the old
saying that one "died laughing".
It was black and white, had little comprehensible dialogue, and no tangible
plot. A series of sight gags, and an ingenious blending of sound with image,
reduced me to tears of laughter.
I later saw his earlier film, 'Jour de fete', 1949, but wasn't as impressed.
In 1958 he produced 'Mon Oncle', which is perhaps my favorite of his films.
I've also seen 'Play Time' (1967), and 'Traffic' (1971). One might say that
Tati was a "man of the left", in broad terms. He was essentially French,
and more particularly Parisian. He loved the city, but hated what modern
life was doing to it - the contrast between the "new" Paris of the middle
class, and the Paris Tati loved was highlighted in 'Mon Oncle'.
There is, I fear, a problem of age involved in viewing Tati. A young friend
of mine, a man with a sense of humor, and himself a film maker - Anthony
Giaccino - patiently sat through a showing of 'Mon Oncle' at my apartment
and found it utterly boring. In none of his films can one say there was a
specific plot. Tati himself played the leading actor in most of his films;
a tall man, with a pipe, and a hat, he had an odd walk that suggested he
was always about to fall forward.
Jacques Tati was one of the great film makers of the last century, a man
who made use of abstract sound as if it were living dialogue. He took remarkable
care in making his films. Scenes that look casual had been carefully set
up. It is true that on a second or third viewing of any of his films there
is always something new to be found. And always the danger one might die
But I am, alas, an old man - painful to say it, but it may account for my
negative view of this final film, 'The Illusionist'. The script Tati left
behind had set the story in Prague, not Paris. Sylvain Chomet shifted the
primary location to Scotland. Perhaps it might have worked in Prague, which
is still European, but Scotland is British. The people living there do not
think of themselves as Europeans and emphatically not as French!
This, I suspect, is the fatal flaw in the film. As it opens, in Paris, (and
I must say that the color and the animation is marvelous - as a work of visual
art the film is remarkable), an aging magician is playing to smaller and
smaller audiences, and looking to make a living, he goes to Scotland, with
his top hat, his rabbit, and his bag of tricks. But the audiences dwindle.
The time for magic and illusion is over. Cinema and television - and
computer-generated animation - are the new magic.
Unhappily (for me), there is a kind of plot, as he meets a young woman in
Scotland who follows him back to Paris. Yet their relationship is never clear
(toward the end of the film she finds a handsome young man whom she takes
as a lover). The magician - who perfectly captures the figure of Jacques
Tati - finds odd jobs and without further giving away the plot, I will say
only that at least the rabbit survives.,
The film has several false starts and uncertain endings. Where Tati's other
films had virtually no plot, The Illusionist can't seem to make up its mind
whether to have a plot or not, and, removed from its native Paris, it is
a beautiful but totally failed project.
I suspect we have two generations here, the older generation, which in its
youth saw 'Hulot's Holiday' and 'Mon Oncle' - let's face it, those were made
(and seen by me) more than half a century ago. A new generation, which may
never have seen Tati's work, is watching 'The Illusionist' and finding it
a five star film, a thing of joy and wonder.
I so deeply regret turning in a minority report. Tati, in his losing battle
against materialism and modernization, in his love for the earlier pace of
Paris, represented a profoundly humane instinct. Yes, he was saying, technology
gives us wonderful things, but it is isolating us. Charlie Chaplin made much
the same point in 'Modern Times'.
Those of us who are older are probably willing, as I am, to sit through 'Mon
Oncle' as many times as it is shown. Perhaps The Illusionist is for a new
generation. It is a lovely film, a work of art, but I must dissent from the
majority of the critics who hail it as a masterpiece.
- David McReynolds -