Jacques Tatis, there and back again
Last year, upon learning about the inevitable release of the French animated film, The Illusionist, I wrote a piece expressing my love for its writer and inspiration, filmmaker Jacques Tati.
French filmmaker Jacques Tati passed away on November 5th, 1982, but it would not be until 2010 that his swan song would be played. It would come in the form of an animated film by the wonderfully talented Sylvain Chomet, who wrote and directed the equally wonderful The Triplets of Belleville (2003), and be written by Tati himself. It will be called The Illusionist, and from what I have read and seen it should be the lovely send off Tati’s career deserves.
Shortly following the post I had learned of a letter Tati’s grandson had sent to Roger Ebert stating that The Illusionist “greatly undermines both the artistry of my grandfather’s original script whilst shamefully ignoring the deeply troubled personal story that lies at its heart.” The personal story he speaks of is Tati’s abandonment of his illegitimate, first born daughter. I responded.
I am an unabashed fan of Tati’s work. His films make me smile like few can. I am also of a mind that art and the artist can exist in their own context. All of this leaves me with an interesting conundrum: What do I do with this information? Should I simply ignore it? Can I?
It appears as though the heart of his grandson’s argument is that Tati had written the film’s script as an open letter to Helga Marie-Jeanne, the daughter he had abandoned. He said that it stood as Tati’s only acknowledgement of her. His claims that Sylvain Chomet and Pathe films deliberately eschewed this information for a more sentimental, decidedly pro-Tati approach is disheartening for a myriad of reasons. Not the least of which being that sentimentality was exactly what I am hoping for.
I believe I will have to let the film speak for itself. After all, I cannot force myself to view it one way or another. I must admit that there is a large part of me that wishes I had never learned anything about Tati’s shame. But perhaps I can still separate art and the artist and simply view the film as the closure of a fine career, if not the atonement he had intended it to be.
I had intended to see The Illusionist in theatres, but never made it. I ended up viewing it at home courtesy of Netflix, long after the films original release date and, more importantly, long after learning of the film’s origins. It tells the story of an aging magician in a world that no longer has use for his magic. He is, quite clearly, Jacques Tati himself, the animation perfectly capturing his nuanced performance style. It was lovely to see him again.
The illusionist eventually encounters a young woman who, good natured and, more importantly, sheltered, is still in awe of his magic. He falls in love with the way she looks at him, the way she makes him feel, and soon they are on the road together. I suppose that this relationship is meant to mirror what Tati had hoped for with his daughter, but his grandson implies that it was much more complicated than that. I am pleased to say that this didn’t occur to me even once while watching the film.
My time away had afforded me the luxury of viewing The Illusionist in exactly the manner I had mentioned; separating the art from the artist. I know little of Jacques Tati, the man. To me, he will always be Monsieur Hulot, a man confounded and delighted by the world around him.
For any fan of the silent film, Monsieur Hulot should be placed alongside Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” as an icon of the genre. This is, of course, regardless of the fact that none of Tati’s Hulot films were actually silent. Though the characters around him spoke quite frequently, Monsieur Hulot could not be bothered. He spoke through his body, letting his lanky frame and polite gesturing do the work for him.
In the last moments of The Illusionist, after having decided to leave the young woman with her new suitor, Tati, the illusionist, leaves behind a note reading: Magicians do not exist. Perhaps he’s right? Perhaps that was the films way of telling us to take Tati and his films as they are? None of us are perfect, but for me, Tati’s films always will be.