Return to Edinburgh

Not literally. I have been back in non-Edinburgh, as the rest of the world is still officially called, for three days, and part of me misses parts of it. It’s raining as I write, which of course takes me back. But not as much as The Illusionist, or L’Illusionniste, Sylvain Chomet’s greedily-anticipated follow-up to Belleville Rendezvous, or Les Triplettes de Belleville, his exquisite first animated feature in 2003. These films take time. Because he made such an impact with the surreal, often grotesque, old-school animation style of Belleville, which, if it resembled any period of Disney at all, recalled the sketchy lines of The Aristocats, it was always going to be tough to follow it up.

And so The Illusionist proves. Based on an unfilmed script by Jacques Tati, it exists as a tribute to the great French clown, who embodies the main character, and is duly silent, or thereabouts. It’s gorgeously drawn – especially the backgrounds – and you’d have to be pretty miserable not to be charmed by the early scenes, when our dog-eared magician tries and fails to compete on a late-50s music hall circuit suddenly dominated by rock’n’roll groups. The palette is as muted as the dialogue. But the lack of words throughout, occasionally replaced by grunts and rhubarb, may not be to modern tastes, and the gentle pacing and all round lack of narrative thrust might also explains why it has failed to set the box office alight, even in France.

It lacks the showbiz pizazz and musical appeal of Belleville, despite being set in the world of theatre, but if taken as a hymn to both Tati – whose relationship with the wide-eyed young Scottish maid who accompanies him to the big city is never creepy, more paternal (it was written as an apology to the daughter he abandoned and never knew) – and to Edinburgh, where the bulk of the story unfolds (and where the wandering Chomet now lives and works), it hits the spot. Not that it matters, but the geography as well as the atmosphere of Edinburgh are singularly and accurately captured. Real places – including Grassmarket, South Bridge, Princes Street, Jenners department store as it would have been in 1959, and the Cameo cinema, which is showing Mon Oncle – are enough to make a recent refugee very nostalgic for the previous two weeks.

So, definitely worth your time if you wish to spend an hour and a half in the company of skilled draftsmen and draftswomen, gently and wordlessly being shunted from France to Scotland, all the while admiring the view and supporting paint-and-cell artistry. But don’t expect any explosions, or sex or girls with dragon tattoos. More The Aristocats without the musical numbers or the cats. And with a rabbit. The rabbit was brilliant.

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5 thoughts on “Return to Edinburgh

  1. I saw both this and Scott Pilgrim vs the World this week, and was struck by how each was a loving homage to two disparate artistic cultures, the one in inexorable decline and largely being superseded by the other. And,this was also reflected in their individual atmospheres (not to mention the mediums in which they have been expressed: gorgeous handpainted but washed-out details or bright, jazzy, equally gorgeous CGI trickery.)

    And I also thought that it was interesting that one of them was getting millions in publicity, television coverage and articles, and the other was going to be lucky to get a few weeks on the “arthouse” circuit. Which, given their respective subject matters, seems rather appropriate.

    I thought they were both terrific, by the way; I want to see both of them again.

  2. Arrgh, I just found out that it won’t be in America until December, and it may not even make it out of New York and Los Angeles. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I saw “Playtime” and the rest of Tati’s work afterwards…

  3. Chomet left Edinburg some time ago. (“I want to have a picnic at least once a year.”)

    Rhubarb. Ok. But I’m sure the gaelic speakers may not agree.

    Made me want to go back and re-watch Tati is it actually was the way claim he is (in my eyes).

    • Not all the rhubarb was Gaelic! Much of it was meant as a kind of noise, rather than dialogue. Don’t you go calling me a racist! I’m not Morrissey.

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