As part of my university application for an MA Scriptwriting course I had to write a script at rather short notice. Typically, after I had sent off my application, I realised the story could also work as an animated film, yet I had written a radio script instead. I’ve always loved animation, so why did this not occur to me at the time of writing my script?
A recent showing of Chomet’s L’Illusionniste at a local arts centre reminded me that traditional animation involves an army of artists whose drawings conjur up a magical world. The animators’ inventiveness has no boundaries, unlike film directors who have to bear the safety of their actors in mind, animators can hurl their protagonists off a skyscraper, can push them over a cliff or bash them over the head with a blunt instrument. The animated protagonist won’t take offence nor will these antics land them in hospital. The animator‘s skill has the power to mesmerise and dazzle children and adults alike. This is an artform which is often forgotten or seen as “second best” with CGI animated blockbusters from companies such as Pixar Animated Studios dominating the box office. Whilst the scripts are undoubtedly funny, the CGI animation leaves me feeling flat, neither dazzled nor mesmerised. Will their films turn into classics, loved by children for generations to come?
If your children have driven you to distraction with films from the Disney Studios or endless repeats of the Toy Story Franchise, why not try out something different and see if you cannot rekindle your love for this wonderful artform dating back to the very beginning of film making.
Review of L’Illusionniste, France/UK/2010, 80mins/PG
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Screenplay: Sylvain Chomet, Jacques Tati
Producer: Sally Chomet, Bob Last, Philippe Carcassonne,
Art Direction: Bjarne Hansen
Music: Sylvain Chomet
Animated version of J Tati/
the illusionist: animator Laurent Kircher
The furore caused by Tati’s grandson soon after The Illusionist’s opening continues to overshadow the critical assessment of the film’s merits.
Jacques Tati, the celebrated French performer and film director ( born Tatischeff, 1907 – 1982), wrote the screenplay allegedly as a response to the guilt he felt at having abandoned his eldest child Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, the illegitimate product of his liaison with a fellow performer at the Lido de Paris.
Tati had met Helga’s mother, Herta Schiel, when she worked with him in music-hall theatre in Paris during the German occupation. Tati’s wealthy sister Nathalie urged him not to marry Herta, when the Austrian born émigrée fell pregnant with Helga. Apparently Herta was eventually persuaded to sign a legal document relinquishing future financial claims and releasing Tati from publicly acknowledging his child. Herta received a sum of money and she left France with her small baby.
At the time Tati’s treatment of Herta and her child was the scandal of the theatrical community in Paris. Many of his fellow performers shunned him and he was forced to leave Paris.
Tati had begun his career as a professional rugby player but later took the stage as a mime artiste. He decided to film his own act in the 1930s and began directing a number of short films. His debut film Jour de fete/The Big Day was produced in 1947, but it was not until 1953, when he introduced his most famous creation to the world, the hapless, gangly character of Monsieur Hulot, that Tati’s career as a performer and film director really took off. Hulot became the central character of most of Tati’s subsequent films.
Hulot’s trademark characteristics were a battered hat, raincoat and pipe. His misadventures arise out of his complete lack of social graces and his inability to communicate with the people around him. Artist Laurent Kirchner used this characterisation to create the animated version of Tati, the illusionist.
After a string of successes including Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle, Tati began to write a screenplay with the title L’Illusionniste. He apparently described it as a letter to his daughter Helga.
The screenplay deals with the relationship of an unsuccessful illusionist and a girl who believes him to be a real magician. By 1958 Tati and his eldest daughter had lost touch with each other, firstly because Tati had abandoned her during the war and secondly because afterwards he could not bring himself to fulfil his duties as a father due to the shame he felt over his earlier treatment of her. The film was never made during Tati’s lifetime. If his initial motivation had been to heal old wounds and make amends, he later shied away from committing to the project.
For a while Helga lived in an orphanage in North Africa. As a teenager living in Morocco, she made several attempts to contact Tati, writing him letters and asking him for help. Sadly, Tati and Helga never met. L’Illusionniste remains the only public acknowledgement of her existence.
After Tati’s death the possibility of turning the script into a film was being discussed with his younger daughter Sophie Tatischeff. She refused to let any actor play the part of Tati and it was decided that an animated version of the film would be the best solution. Sophie died in 2001, so she never got the chance to see Chomet’s adaptation of her father’s screenplay.
In a letter to the Observer Tati’s grandson Richard McDonald complained that “the sabotaging of Tati’s original L’Illusionniste script, without recognising his troubled intentions, so that it resembles little more than a grotesque, eclectic, nostalgic homage to its author is the most disrespectful act.”
Chomet disagreed with the McDonald family and claimed he had sought inspiration from his relationship with his own children, when he adapted the screenplay. Chomet is adamant that Tati wrote the script for his younger daughter Sophie, in recognition of how little she must have seen of her workaholic father during her childhood.
The director’s refusal to take the route of many other animators, who use CGI animation in an attempt to emulate Pixar Animation Studio’s success, has produced a visually stunning film. The main action takes place in 1950s Scotland, using Edinburgh as the backdrop. Critics have described the film as “a love letter to Edinburgh”, where Chomet’s main studio is based. Far less inventive and therefore less dazzling than his 2003 international success Belleville Rendez-vous, work on the L’Illusionniste was completed in studios in South Korea, Paris and London at a cost of some £13,000,000.
The film’s main protagonist, the illusionist, travels from city to city in search of ever decreasing opportunities to work as a magician. In the late 1950s rock ‘n roll bands took over the theatres traditionally reserved for variety shows. The introduction of television to households across the world vastly changed people’s expectations with regard to entertainment fit for the 20th century.
The film functions well as homage to the comic performer Tati and as a nostalgic look at music hall acts of the 1950s, but the adaptation fails when it tries to deal with Tati’s troubled relationship with his daughter(s).
The beauty of the drawings and some of the superb animation sequences, particularly the ones dishing up rabbit stew (look away animal lovers everywhere!) will guarantee the film a place in animation history. However, the questionable adaptation of Tati’s script will not recommend Chomet as the choice director for future projects of a similar nature.
The film opened across France in eighty-four cinemas on 16.06.2010. It entered the French box office chart at number eight, taking US$ 600,099 in the opening weekend. By the end of June L’Illusionniste was already missing from the box office charts. The CGI animated film Shrek Forever After (Dreamworks) had entered the charts at number one and had grossed US$ 11,470,044 within its first week.
The irony cannot have been lost on Chomet. Just as rock ‘n roll, TV and cinema drove out variety acts, traditionally animated films are facing an uncertain future.