The Illusionist (L’illusionniste) is a French animated film that is…well…very French. There are no subtitles though. That’s because there isn’t much dialog and it is mostly in English, except that it is Scottish English as spoken by French actors, which is no more comprehensible to the average native English speaker than it was to the original French audience. The bottom line is that this is basically pantomime, and the dialog is no more than sound effects.
The good news is that the animation is very good. As for the story, your mileage may vary.
It seems to take place in the 1950s or early 1960s, though the costumes don’t quite fit either era. Tatischeff (Jean-Claude Donda) is an aging French stage magician. He is skilled at sleight-of-hand, but so stiff and awkward that it is hard to believe that he could ever have been very successful on stage. He is further hampered by his companion, a rabbit with the temperment of a pit bull.
Tatischeff is reduced to playing smaller and smaller theaters for ever-smaller audiences. He ends up getting a gig in a remote Scottish village where the locals are very impressed by his tricks, though they seem equally impressed by an electric light bulb.
Alice (Eilidh Rankin) is a naive young serving girl who mistakes him for a real magician and becomes infatuated with him. She follows him to Edinburgh and they end up sharing a run-down hotel suite. It’s all very innocent: she sleeps in the bedroom; he sleeps on the sofa; she cooks his meals; he takes part-time jobs in order to buy her nice things. Eventually with her pretty new clothes and newly-acquired city ways she in able to win the love of a handsome young man.
This is based on an old script by the late actor-director Jacques Tati who was renowned as a master of slapstick comedy. I remember seeing his Mr. Hulot’s Holiday many years ago and thinking it was hilarious. Therefore it pains me to say that the slapstick sequences in The Illusionist don’t strike me as particularly funny. Maybe if Tati had been the director they would have worked better.
Most of the critics who praise this film describe it as “poignant” rather than “funny.” I’m not sure. Is the spectacle of an old man in love with a teenage girl poignant or just pitiable? As I said, your mileage may vary.