Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The illusion of Edinburgh

I went over the weekend to see the latest film by Sylvain Chomet called The Illusionist. I admire Chomet's filmmaking enormously, and take special pleasure in his depictions of cities. In his previous work, The Triplets of Belleville, Paris was illuminated with a nostalgic glow and New York City electric with its kinetic energy. In The Illusionist, the primary city of desire is Edinburgh, depicted as a kind of perfect city influenced by its Medieval heritage and still thrumming despite post-War austerity. A young girl from the Scottish hinterlands follows the magician from the fishing village to the great city, hoping a better life in league with a man of magic. The avuncular spellcaster takes her in as he plies his trade for any sort of living. She is naturally tempted by the fashions of urban society, though the pair have very meager means. Yet, he manages, only just, to conjure for her the things she seems to desire, to provide for her in his way.
Based on an incomplete script by Jacques Tati following the success of Mon Oncle, the fable is full of allusions, illusions, and a sense of moving on in spite of falling further and further out of step with one's times. He is clearly a pre-War sort of chap and she is destined for post-War womanhood, still they carry on.
The bittersweetness of the film, and its particularly European mien, may leave American viewers scratching their heads, but the film does burrow into the mind's eye and its small riches reveal themselves over time, even well after seeing the film. Chomet is a master of creating the hyperreality of a familiar place, elevating the well-known collection of a city's famous sites into a holistic kind of aspiration in stone. Edinburgh, as imagined in the early 1960s, becomes a place of possibilities even with the disappointments all great cities harbor along with myriad opportunities. The Scottish capitol looks ravishing, inspiring, well-lived in, and massively attractive in this animated work of wonder.

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