I saw the trailer for The Illusionist before seeing Gainsbourg at the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh – an intriguing mix of French-directed and written film set in my home town. The Cameo itself (a Picturehouse cinema too) even features in it.
What Kitty said in her post on arthouse cinema in London about the short-lived residency of art-house films in London hits the nail on the head. If you want to catch a low-budget or foreign film (on my current wishlist is Wah Do Dem, The Maid and The Secret In Their Eyes), you have approximately 5 days in which to see it and then its gone. You’ve got to be organised…
… So myself and Vodka Princess (I really should stop inviting friends to come up with their own blog names) headed to the Brixton Ritzy on Wednesday night for wine, food and The Illusionist. The new look Ritzy is great – Parisian pavement-style cafe spilling onto Windrush Square outside, decent food including a yummy burger (see photo below), wine you can pop back in the fridge while the film is on, and an upstairs bar doing comedy, music and quiz nights. All very community and arty and I liked how the board outside displaying the film names included messages from the locals – a proposal one day and that night a thank-you note to someone’s nanny (see photo above).
So to the film. Written semi-autobiographically by Jacques Tati and directed by Sylvain Chomet (he of Belleville Rendevouz), it bucks the trend of CGI and 3D – instead the animation is lovingly and beautifully hand-drawn. This makes the film incredibly beautiful to watch – many scenes are stunning and luminous and like a piece of art in themselves. It tells the story of a French illusionist (Mr Tatischeff, modelled on Tati and maybe on Chomet too) whose old-fashioned show of rabbits pulled out of hats and card tricks is ill-received in the modernising cities of Paris and London, where screaming girls prefer Beatles-style bands and his audience has dwindled to old grannies and their bored grandkids. A chance encounter with a drunken kilt-wearing Scot (aren’t they all) takes him to a remote Highlands community where he befriends the maid Alice, loners both, and they head to Edinburgh to make their fortunes.
Much of the rest of the film centres on the beauty of 1950s Edinburgh. The views to Arthur’s Seat, over Princes Street gardens and the Bridges, the cobbled streets of the Grassmarket and boutiques of George Street. But this is Edinburgh in times of old – in the heyday of Jenners, the days of steam trains and antique shops, before London-style wine bars, high-street chains, pound shops and tacky highland souvenir stores took over.
Apart from the developing relationship between the illusionist and Alice, and her maturity into modern life, nothing much actually happens in this film. Indeed, no-one really speaks – apart from honking noises and sounds. It is more what the film says about the world it portrays. It is an ode to times gone by, to innocence and simplicity, before new fashions and entertainment and technology took over. It is an ode to loners, odd-balls, lost souls and eccentrics, many of whom share the Broughton Place hotel with the illusionist. It is a story of finding love and companionship where you may least expect it. And it is an ode to the beauty and grace of Edinburgh. Anyone who knows Auld Reekie should definitely take a look, if only to sigh at the beauty of Princes Street at the end of the 50s.