Humble Truths in The Illusionist and Skeletons

As a summer steeped in explosions, remakes and sequels draws to a close, you may find yourself in a delicate state. To avoid becoming lost in a hysterical, Groundhog Day-esque cycle of déjà vu, sanctuary can be found in Sylvain Chomet’s arresting animated feature The Illusionist (2010), or Nick Whitfield’s charming debut Skeletons (2010). Both films craft soothing, enduring realities, inhabited by affectionate characters whose flaws and exploits reveal the most basic human truths.

Something only a grandmother could love

The Illusionist is Chomet’s follow up to his acclaimed Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003) which, for all its elaborate visual ingenuity, lacked emotional pull. Any sympathy I felt toward the lonely boy, befriended only by his dumpy grandmother, disappeared the moment he grew into towering excess of muscle and bone toned purely for cycling. But The Illusionist succeeds in easing our sympathies towards its array of impoverished entertainers by reflecting their needs and desires in its rich texture. Chomet’s approach is based on the films of Jacques Tati, who favoured visual comedy over dialogue, and The Illusionist is adapted from an unproduced screenplay by Tati. It follows Tatischeff, a magician struggling to find an audience in 1959 who aren’t just seeking rock and roll. Tatischeff’s hunched posture and awkward mannerisms perfectly mimic Tati’s most famous character, Monsieur Hulot, but Tati’s humour is countered by a prevailing sadness as the magician’s charms risk being lost in a whirlwind of modern culture. Alice, a girl he meets in a Scottish village, is enchanted by his illusions, and drawn to his kindness. She follows him to Edinburgh, where he struggles to provide for her as the city’s glamour begins to whisk her away.

Looks like a tight squeeze

A fragile friendship also forms the spine of Skeletons. Fitting the Laurel and Hardy model of little meets large and disagrees repeatedly, Davis and Bennett are business partners and best friends. The service they provide involves calibrating some instruments that could probably be found in an outdated science classroom, donning some goggles that almost certainly were, then literally stepping into a client’s closet and exhuming “skeletons”. Inside they view, and act out, the client’s hidden memories, before returning to reality and relating the memories, usually of lewd encounters or subversive fancies, to their shamed owners. The mythology that drives Davis and Bennett’s business is deliberately oblique, there to be appreciated for its eccentricities rather then fully understood. Ultimately, the concept’s complexities highlight that however convoluted matters seem, the sources of our most powerful emotions, and life’s bare necessities (to echo a wise bear), remain unchanged. This message underlies the obstacles they face as Davis dwells in memories rather then living life, and Bennett forms a bond with their latest client, who is in turn searching for her lost husband. As in The Illusionist, the formation of surrogate families brings a sense of belonging, touching the lives of all involved. But not all characters in both films will find happiness.  

The universality of Skeletons’ themes is reflected in its timeless setting, found in an alternate reality where characters can transport themselves to metaphysical planes of existence, yet have no mobile phones. Davis and Bennett’s customers live in cosy country houses, surrounded by picturesque fields traversed via leisurely strolls, or the odd train journey. While The Illusionist is set in a specific year and location, it uses slapstick gags and endearing characters to incite childish wonderment, yet places these in a melancholic world drawn from adult experience. The animation is striking, each scene bathed in sepia tones that elegantly capture Tatischeff grasping for an age of fading photos. Chomet’s key illusion is the subtle absorption of digital imagery in homely illustrations. Meanwhile, Skeletons drifts from solid realities to abstract phantasmagorias through good old fashioned camera pans and smooth editing.

They're probably all watching The Last Airbender - I hear there's way more explosions

Sadly, it is these films dedication to understated cinematic trickery that may cost them a wider audience. Although The Illusionist is modestly pulling five star reviews from its hat, and is sure to appear on at least one academy award shortlist, like Tatischeff it risks losing young audiences to louder acts. Similarly, Skeletons bold refusal of genre branding – hopping from oddball buddy comedy, to surreal arthouse adventure, before unexpectedly sneaking into your heart – makes for a challenging sell. The Illusionist is currently enjoying a fairly decent release across the UK, but Skeletons will have to be hunted down as it tours smaller venues. For those who catch these films the memories will linger like friendly locals, after the summers tourists have left.

By James Taylor


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