You may recall me posting a few weeks ago about Belleville Rendezvous director Sylvian Chomet making a brief appearance at the Edinburgh Filmhouse for the screening of Paris, Je t’Aime (the film is a collection of shorts by different creators, including Sylvian and goes on general release next weekend). Well, I am indebted to one of our resident comics geniuses and animation enthusiast Leo Baxendale who spotted an article in today’s Guardian film section where they talk not only about Sylvian creating a short for Paris, Je t’Aime but also mentions his next feature-length animated film, the Illusionist. The Illusionist is based on an unfilmed script by one of France’s finest makers of comedy film, the great Jacques Tati; Sylvian included a scene from Tati’s Jour du Fete in Belleville Rendevouz and managed to persuade Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff to allow him to base his next film on the unseen script.
“It’s a magical thing for us to be able to revive Jacques Tati. I am a big fan of his. I am personally doing the character of Tati. It’s based on him and his character Monsieur Hulot,” Sylvian Chomet talking to the Guardian about the Illusionist.
(a scene from Chomet’s The Illusionist, borrowed from an article on Animwatch)
The film follows a magician who is barely scraping a living until he comes to a remote community where he develops a following, with one woman coming to believe he has real magical powers (a little like some audience members in the recent Edward Norton film which was also called The Illusionist). Tati originally planned the location to be in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech republic of course) but Sylvian has relocated the action to Scotland, where he is now based. In fact, I was surprised to learn he has settled himself in to make his next film in the small town of North Berwick, just half an hour’s drive down the coast from where I am in Edinburgh; I wonder if I’ve passed him while dog-walking on the beach and not even realised it? The Illusionist will be a silent movie with no dialogue (the magician doesn’t speak the local language anyway), relying more on visuals, which seems fitting since Tati created some delightful movie visual language himself, which works across cultural and linguistic borders in much the way the finest silent comedians such as Buster Keaton did before him and also means the Illusionist should similarly be able to travel across such borders to appeal to all sorts of audiences.
Sylvian was down to create an animated movie for Hollywood, adapting a children’s book, Tales of Desperaux, but gave up in despair at the endless requests to lighten the dark mood into something more like most mainstream US family-friendly animated movies, while, as his wife Sally remarked, the blatant commercialism of the endeavour was depressing, noting that no sooner would they create a character sketch than the marketing suits would be assessing how well it could be turned into a line of merchandise figures. Not that there is anything wrong with figures based on cartoon characters – we sell them, after all and I have a number in my own collection – but I have to agree with Sally and Sylvian that making the toy merchandise a key component of your movie design is pretty dire. Sylvian was less than impressed with mainstream Hollywood animation, commenting on Animwatch: “Animation can be mature but too many cartoons have the same shiny big-eyes style so kids only know one taste and can’t tell the difference between good food and junk food any more. Look at Pixar’s Cars. It makes cars look cute when they’re destroying the planet. It’s awful. The company’s now a corporation and everything they do looks the same.” Well, I actually enjoy some of the mainstream work, especially Pixar’s output, but he is right that we need some variety – I certainly couldn’t stand seeing no other animations apart from Pixar or Shrek-type offerings anymore than I would want to read only a mainstream comic every week.
I absolutely adored Belleville (in fact I just re-watched it yet again a couple of weeks ago), with a great story, lovely humour, characters and brilliant art which had touches of the Gerald Scarfe about them; I can’t wait to see what he creates in the Illusionist. And I’m in good company in being a fan of his animation – Leo tells me he too is a huge admirer of Sylvian’s work and in fact he put a reference to him in his Treasure Island Tryptich which was the centre piece of his recent Stroppy Women exhibition (which you can read about here), naming an apple in it the Belleville Rendezvous Pippin. On a related topic, Animwatch has posted a new animation podcast just a few days ago which you can check out here.