Elegant with Undertones of Sadness

Comedic genius Jacques Tati reborn

Comedic genius Jacques Tati reborn

The Illusionist  ★★★½Directed by Sylvain Chomet; PG – 90 minutesScreens Saturday to Monday, March 26-26, at UVic’s Cinecenta

Although he won an Oscar and was a revered writer-director-performer in his day, comedic genius Jacques Tati has almost vanished from memory. The gawky Frenchman made only six films, and his near mime-like commentaries on the alienation of contemporary society seem light years distant from the frenetic vulgarities of Adam Sandler or Seth Rogen. This contrast is clear in The Illusionist, an animated movie by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) that is based on an unproduced script by Tati that was written a half-century ago.

Its protagonist is an unnamed magician whom we first see on stage in the Paris of Tati’s era. He performs the usual litany of tricks, from the rabbit pulled out of a top hat to a bouquet of flowers materialized from thin air. The audience response is tepid and a move to London finds the audiences similarly underwhelmed. This aging, out-of-date illusionist then trudges up to a small town in Scotland where he charms a naïve chambermaid with some sleight-of-hand that she thinks is real magic.

The two eventually pair up, in the manner of a father and daughter, and head off to the bright lights of Edinburgh where they get rooms at a hotel that houses various variety-show performers including a trio of acrobats and a glum ventriloquist. The young woman has innocent desires for fancy new shoes and dresses, unaware that the magician can’t really materialize them and is taking extra jobs to subsidize these presents. And so events roll along, not unlike in an old-fashioned O Henry short story, until reaching a perfectly bittersweet conclusion.

The look and mood of Illusionist are elegant and wonderfully old-fashioned, while the soundtrack recalls the music hall tunes of a bygone age. There is an undercurrent of sadness flowing through the scenes, offset by touches of sly humour. And the way the magician has been animated very accurately captures the stork-like grace of Tati. There is even more to be had from the film if you know that during the Second World War the young Tati abandoned his Austrian girlfriend and their illegitimate infant daughter, from whom he remained permanently estranged. It seems clear that that shabby domestic failure largely inspired this low-key tale that explores the various illusions that afflict both the young and those who are old enough to know better. M

Rich sequel a must-see

West is West  ★★★½

Directed by Andy DeEmmonyStarring Aqib Khan, Om Puri and Linda Bassett103 minutesOpens Friday at the Odeon

It was fully 12 years ago that we met the gloriously dysfunctional Khan clan. Its patriarch, “George” (a.k.a. Jahangir), had emigrated from Pakistan to 1970s England and married an English woman. Their mixed-race kids were caught between two very different cultures and East is East proved to be both a raucous comedy and a wise and heartfelt exploration of the complexities of race and the need for children to fit in. The long-awaited sequel, West is West, is as rich and entertaining as its predecessor.

The original film was set in the northern town of Salford where the irascible and domineering George (the wonderful Om Puri) ran a chip shop. The sequel largely unfolds in Pakistan, which is where the alienated and grossly misbehaving 15-year-old son Sajid has been taken by George to learn about his Pakistani heritage. As it turns out, George abandoned his first wife and daughters many years ago, hoping to make a better life for himself in England. He has been sending lots of money to his first family and has some expectations of being hailed as a returning hero ­— but as it turns out, the misguided and oft-blustering George has even more stern lessons awaiting him than does his peevish son, who soon blossoms under the kindly attentions of a Sufi holy man.

West is a must-see for film fans who like a bit of spice in their cinema diet. The savvy script and fine performances take the multicultural specifics of a coming-of-age story and lift it up into a universal tale that is generous with its comedy and its humanism. M

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