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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 02/11/2011

The 'Riffs Interview: 'ILLUSIONIST' filmmaker Sylvain Chomet delves into art, inspiration & Oscars

By Michael Cavna

illusionist1.jpg (images: "The Illusionist" / Sony Pictures Classics)

In 1949's sometime-sublime "Jour de fête," the French comedic legend Jacques Tati plays a postal worker who gives determined chase to a careening, unmanned bicycle. Tati skids, swerves, pivots and then sprints with long, high-kneed strides. The bike almost seems sentient, and the cat-and-mouse chase almost a pitting of equals.

Gifted French filmmaker SYLVAIN CHOMET can surely relate.

Chomet has spent much of the past six years chasing Tati's elusive ghost -- or rather, trying to summon the spirit of Tati while also grafting his own vision onto the dead legend's unproduced screenplay, "The Illusionist."

Fortunately for the filmgoer, Chomet -- like Tati's postman -- delivers, and not without his own careening challenges.

The obstacles and potholes have been considerable since Chomet decided to saddle up the unproduced story by his beloved genius countryman. The creative result -- the hand-drawn animated feature that is his "Illusionist" -- has been the subject of controversy, criticism and, as of last month, a richly deserved Oscars nomination.

"I've been really surprised this year," says Chomet, who previously has received Academy Award noms for 2003's beguiling "The Triplets of Belleville" (Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song) and 1998's "La vieille dame et les pigeons" (Best Animated Short). "There were so many good contenders this year, and only just three finalists."

The aesthetic achievement that is "The Illusionist" (now in wider release from Sony Pictures Classics) can compel an animation fan to wish there were twin Oscar categories this year -- one for all-CGI animation, and a second category for traditional or hybrid forms. Chomet's film -- lushly hand-drawn except for some 3-D effects -- is competing later this month in the Best Animated Feature category against two CGI and 3-D behemoths: Disney/Pixar's "Toy Story 3" (also up for Best Picture) and DreamWork Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon".

"Both CGI and hand-drawn animation are achievements in art," says Chomet, noting that "Illusionist" employs some 3-D effects for cars, smoke and rain. "Comparing them is like comparing a drawing and a photograph. ... They shouldn't be compared -- they are different kinds of animation."

Chomet, as it turns out, is an enthusiastic fan of "Toy Story." "I've been watching it over and over and know every single scene -- I love it," pronounces Chomet, a 47-year-old father who has two young children. "I love the character of Big Baby."

Plus, "It's a very touching thing," Chomet says of the Pixar film's mix of joy and poignancy. "They have a lot of great ideas, and you know these people have fun when they do it. They're not trying to sell -- they're trying to make a great film and are really focused on the film."

chomet.jpg (Image: SYLVAIN CHOMET [by Philippe Quaisse / courtesy Sony Pictures Classics]

Much the same could be said about Chomet and his passionate devotion to storytelling and craft. The near-wordless "Illusionist" tells Tati's melancholic tale of an aging, traveling music-hall magician at the dawn of rock and roll -- and of the girl who fairly believes that his hat-and-rabbit sleight-of-hand means this man is capable of genuine magic. The poor, anachronistic performer must then try to maintain his ultimate illusion: that he has the means to provide for his new, live-in admirer.

Chomet emphasizes, however, that theirs is not a magic of adult chemistry.

"The things that are expressed in this movie are about a father-daughter relationship ... ," Chomet tells Comic Riffs. "I made sure it's a parental relationship -- the girl is younger [but] it's very important to show that there's no sexual thing.

"At the end, something has changed in her. She has become a woman, but I kept it platonic," continues Chomet, pausing to compare the relationship to that in the excellent 1952 Charlie Chaplin film "Limelight," in which a comedian in decline and a young, troubled ballet dancer use each other as emotional ballast.

It is the real-life father/daughter side of the equation, however, that has helped spark controversy about Chomet's film.

Some insiders insist that Tati's long-unproduced story was inspired by his relationship -- or lack thereof -- with his eldest estranged daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel.

Chomet, on the other hand, says he believes Tati wrote the script for a different daughter -- Sophie Tatischeff. The filmmaker says she had expressed an interest in having Chomet cinematically tell her father's story. But then Sophie died suddenly in 2001.

"I was supposed to meet her a couple of months later," Chomet says. "But I never got to."

Chomet also notes that how different the original screenplay was. "The original script [in the '50s] was very bizarre. ... They were thinking of casting a young Brigitte Bardot and it was a very sexy, sexual story -- very different. She wasn't a little girl -- she was much more of a young woman."

"I wanted a dad and daughter, so I changed the script," says Chomet, who mentions that he has an older, second daughter himself -- who is 18 now "and turning into a woman -- yes, you kind of lose your little girl, but in a nice way."

Pausing, Chomet declares: "I dedicate this film to all the daughters in the world."


Chomet also changed the location: From Tati's scripted Prague to the Edinburgh of "The Illusionist" -- the same city where Chomet has had his Django film studio. As a result, Chomet gets to delight in depicting a visually engrossing Edinburgh, rich in purples and dark blues, rippling with fog and drizzle.

"That is what is gorgeous about Scotland," Chomet says, impassioned. "It's how the light changes. The sky and the landscape are almost in love with each other.

"There is always something happening" with the shifting light and weather, says Chomet, citing that's why Edinburgh can be beastly for trying to shoot a live-action film -- but a glorious blessing as inspiration for an animated rendering. In "Illusionist," climate is a splendidly cast character.


Also visually mesmerizing is how Chomet summons suggestions of Tati as well as Tati's famed comic character, Monsieur Hulot. "The Illusionist" aptly captures Hulot's lankiness, long strides, sometimes hunched torso -- everything right down to the highly hiked pants (here, a striking magenta) and very visible socks.

Still, Chomet -- who graduated in 1987 with a diploma in animation from the School of Visual Arts in Angoulême -- is adamant that this film is not meant as homage to Tati, nor is it autobiography.

"It wasn't made to be an homage," insists Chomet. "It's really important that people who like Tati would see another side of Tati -- something very different from anything he'd done before."

The film does pay its moments of respect to Tati -- perhaps most overtly when a character enters a cinema and there, in live action, we see a screening of his 1958 film "Mon Oncle." Too, the aging magician's name is Tatischeff -- Tati's true surname.

Yet, "It's not a Monsieur Hulot story," Chomet says emphatically. "That's why I was interested in doing it."

Chomet's Tatischeff indeed seems like something much more. There is an undeniable melancholy that some Monsieur Hulot purists -- apparently the same sort of literal, hobgoblin loyalists who insist "Illusionist" should be homage -- have said they find off-putting.

But then, this is where Chomet -- very much the textured storyteller and confident artist -- is staking out "The Illusionist" as something special and personal and perhaps unexpected. In exploring "another side of Tati," in plumbing the bittersweet, there is a poetic wistfulness in the mist.

This is clearly Chomet's creative vehicle -- his mood, his machinery -- even as the filmmaker polishes Tati's core, on-the-page poignancy.

" 'The Illusionist' is kind of a love letter from someone who isn't there anymore," Chomet says. "Jacques Tati is still talking to us -- it's a dedication from Tati. And in that, it's very human."

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By Michael Cavna  | February 11, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  | Tags:  2011 Academy Awards, Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist, Triplets of Belleville  
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