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French Animator Conjures Illusions of Auld Reekie

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Helena Smith/
Edinburgh International Film Festival

In an approach sure to tickle the locals, Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist" views the misty slopes of the Scottish highlands and the spooky battlements of Edinburgh though the eyes of a visiting Frenchman and finds them all unutterably magical. Born through a lucky intersection of an uncompleted Jacques Tati script and Mr. Chomet's visit to the Scottish capital with "The Triplets of Belleville" (released as "Belleville Rendez-Vous" in Britain) in 2003, his new animation sings with nostalgia, charm and the painful passage of time.

Poignancy is inbuilt in its story of Tatischeff, a middle-aged stage illusionist in the Paris of 1959. Facing the extinction of variety shows by upstart rock-'n'-roll bands with formidably tight trousers, he follows his nose to Edinburgh via London and the Hebrides. Along the way he acquires Alice, a teenage Scottish girl who suspects that he's a real magician. He takes odd jobs and the occasional gig while she gazes at the bright lights and expensive clothes, and between them they get by. Lacking much common ground and anything close to a common language, they nevertheless share everything.

"The relationship between the two — between 'father' and 'daughter' — came from me, not Tati," noted Mr. Chomet, speaking at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. "In the original treatment the illusionist had a relationship with a young woman who happens to look like a young Brigitte Bardot. You can't put that on screen without bringing in a sexual element, and that wasn't at all right for this. So instead we employed the relationship between a father and a daughter, which is always one of the most fantastic love stories there is — not least because it always has to end in chaos."

The Tati script also led the illusionist in a different compass direction.

"His version was a work in progress," the director said. "It had only got as far as being titled 'Film Tati No. 4' and the character went to Prague rather than Edinburgh."

Mr. Chomet's prior visit to the Scottish capital had fueled his visual imagination.

"There is something very special about the weather here," he said. "It's as if you are moving through it on a train, and the whole effect is wonderfully visual. I think the move to Edinburgh was a very natural one to make."

The weather and the people under it are lovingly depicted in a style recognizable from "Belleville", but the humor in "The Illusionist" is warmer and the sentiment more direct. Mr. Chomet's eye for a wistful laugh comes through everywhere, from the droplets of water on the camera "lens" during a sea crossing, to the warm-hearted and eternally sloshed Scotsman who rolls down a hillside just as a giddy schoolgirl. Eventually, the old boy switches to the rockers' trademark routine of writhing around on the floor, as the old ways slide further away.

The illusionist himself — part Tati for sure, but looking not entirely unlike Mr. Chomet — is a conspicuously poor fit with the modern world. Too tall for door frames and sofas, he might be the last animal of his kind, if not for the other vaudevillians marooned in a flea-pit hotel by unemployment. Every room holds a clown, acrobat or ventriloquist with a heavy heart.

As a love poem to the city, the film is flawless. The Cameo cinema makes a cameo appearance (showing Tati, natch), Jenners department store is a box of watercolored delights, while the castle looms over everything. And the city works its magic: Alice bumps into a Brylcreemed Scots lad distinctly resembling a former milkman from Fountainbridge who later played James Bond; and she duly heads off into a future of her own.

"The magic is not in the animator. The magic is in the art form," said Mr. Chomet, who created the Django Films animation studio in Edinburgh specifically to weave his spell.

In return for the city's support, he has gifted the place with a blissful overhaul of its habitual air of the fantastic, turning it into a spot where magicians' rabbits populate the hillside and advertising hoardings are painted by acrobats swinging through the air — a city built entirely of illusions and benevolent illusionists.

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