Saturday 22 November 2014

Illusions of grandeur

Published 21/08/2010 | 05:00

Some of you may remember French film-maker Sylvain Chomet's 2003 animated feature Belleville Rendez-Vous, which attracted two Oscar nominations and was widely praised for its originality, humour and charm. Now Mr Chomet has made a new film in a not-dissimilar style that's proved rather more controversial.

The Illusionist, which was released here yesterday, tells the story of a French magician in the late 1950s who has a series of misadventures while on a working tour of Scotland.

It's based on an abandoned screenplay by celebrated French comic and film-maker Jacques Tati -- and Tati is omnipresent in this appealing but relentlessly dour animation.

The magician is called Tatischeff, which was Tati's real name, and the character resembles the comic in every detail. He's tall, ungainly, polite, faintly apologetic and eternally out of step with the modern world that surrounds him. In other words, he's just like the 'Monsieur Hulot' character that Tati played in most of his films.

In Chomet's film, Tatischeff meets an impoverished young woman while performing in the Outer Hebrides. Feeling sorry for her, he buys her a new pair of red shoes, but she thinks he has conjured them by magic.

When the illusionist departs for Edinburgh, she follows. There, he tries to keep up with her enthusiasm for clothes by secretly double-jobbing and a sweet but unsustainable father-daughter relationship develops.

Tati was inspired to write the story in an attempt to reconcile with his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, whom he had abandoned when she was a baby. And although she's still alive today and may in fact be his only direct living relative, she is nowhere mentioned in the dedications, which has seriously annoyed some.

The controversy has cast a shadow over Sylvain Chomet's film, just as it did over Jacques Tati's otherwise illustrious career.

Though little known to younger people these days outside France, Tati was one of the most celebrated comic film-makers of the immediate post-war period and his fame spread to both Britain and the United States.

Although his films were nominally 'talkies', he used very little dialogue and his humour was overwhelmingly physical -- in other words, accessible to all.

Born in 1907 in the small town of Pecq, not far from Paris, Jacques Tatischeff hailed from a distinguished line of Russian emigres and was raised in a comfortable, bourgeois environment.

At school, he preferred sports to studies and after doing his military service, Jacques became an enthusiastic rugby player at the celebrated Racing Club in Paris.

There, he discovered a talent for entertaining his team-mates with mimes based on the sport, which included a nervous full-back waiting for the high ball to drop.

Emboldened by his colleagues' laughter, he used the mimes to form the basis of his first professional routine and by the mid-1930s he was a regular on the Parisian music-hall circuit. He adopted the stage name of Tati and began appearing in comic films.

After serving in the French Army during his nation's brief resistance to the German invasion in 1940, Tati returned to Paris and became something of a hit with his Impressions Sportives show at the Lido Theatre. It was at the Lido that he met and began a relationship with an Austrian dancer called Herta Schiel.

In 1942, Herta became pregnant by Jacques and gave birth to a daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne. In a quandry about what to do, Jacques sought the advice of his sister Nathalie, a formidable businesswoman.

She advised him against marrying Helga, who was persuaded to sign a legal document releasing the comedian from his obligations as a father in return for money. Helga later left the country with her baby and married another man.

Tati married, too, in 1944, and had a legitimate family. But even in the louche environment of the Parisian music halls, many of his colleagues were unimpressed with Tati's treatment of Helga and their child and the incident would later come back to haunt him.

After the war, Tati made and released his first film, a short called L'École Des Facteurs (1947), about a smalltown postman who goes to ridiculous lengths to deliver the mail more efficiently. It was a minor hit and provided the inspiration for Tati's first feature, Jour De Fete (1949), in which the theme was expanded.

Although he had not yet invented the character of Monsieur Hulot, Jour De Fete contained most of his visual trademarks and overarching themes.

While there was very little dialogue, sound effects were used cleverly to add to the humour and atmosphere. Tati's elegantly clumsy pratfalls were sublime and his character, as ever, was at odds with the modern world.

Western society's obsession with technology at the expense of humanity was a recurring theme, as well as the isolation of those individuals who, for whatever reason, can't keep up.

He expressed all this more perfectly in Les Vacances De M Hulot (1954), which was a big hit in Britain, Ireland and the US, as well as France.

In it, his permanently perplexed hero, Monsieur Hulot, did battle with deckchairs and parasols while endeavouring to enjoy a seaside holiday.

Mild and patient and eternally nonplussed, Hulot constantly puffed an unlit pipe and wore drainpipe trousers that ended abruptly several inches above his socks.

He was a brilliant creation but what raised him above the merely amusing into the level of high comedy was a kind of sad-clown bewilderment that moved his audience, as well as making them laugh.

Like Chaplin's Tramp, Hulot was a kind of everyman whose plight moved us and who we knew was destined never ever to be in step.

Monsieur Hulot would appear in three more Tati films, including the brilliant and charming Mon Oncle (1958). But Tati bankrupted himself, spending nine years and a small fortune on his 1967 film Playtime, which involved the construction of a huge fabricated city set on the edge of Paris.

Playtime was a critical and commercial flop on its release and Tati never quite recovered from its failure. He completed several more modest films before dying in Paris in 1982 at the age of 75.

He never reconciled with his first daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, but the idea on which The Illusionist is based does seem to have been an expression of genuine regret.

Certainly, her existence seems bound up in its melancholy story and the fury of her family at the neglect of even a mention of her name in the credits is perhaps understandable.

Schiel's son Richard McDonald even claims that Sylvain Chomet has distorted Tati's original intentions.

"The sabotaging of Tati's original L'Illusioniste script," says McDonald, "without recognising his troubled intentions, so that it resembles little more than a grotesque, eclectic, nostalgic homage to its author is the most disrespectful act."

One wonders what Tati himself would have thought.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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