The increasing ease with which well-funded filmmakers create illusions has the perverse effect of making those images less illusory and more of an advertisement for their own sophistication. Think about Avatar: As much of a gee-whiz marvel as it may have been for moviegoers, will it really influence a generation of ambitious shoestring filmmakers?
For all that artists talk about breaking boundaries and cutting edges, there's a strong streak of aesthetic conservatism that runs through filmmakers. While some aspects of digital technology have made filmmaking cheaper and more accessible to upstarts, other technological developments have just made it more difficult for those without money, while also driving mass taste to expect nothing less than millions of dollars of "Wow" on the screen. Nostalgia for last century's films and books courses through the finest directors working today: Quentin Tarantino and his loving references to prewar European cinema in Inglourious Basterds; Steven Soderbergh and his painstaking mimicry of World War II-era films in (the badly flawed) The Good German, Wes Anderson and his Salinger fixations and Richard Linklater, last seen paying homage to the young Orson Welles.
In mainstream narrative filmmaking, the best are looking backward because the illusions in those old films still seem real.
Sylvain Chomet's deeply felt and painfully melancholy The Illusionist is another film that wallows in the visual and aural furniture of a vanishing popular culture. This film, nominated for a best animated feature Oscar, is set way back in 1959, just before the Beatles and their fellow barbarians set about changing the world. We're placed in the waning days of vaudeville performers: In dingy halls and in front of aging, bored people, the title character works a forlorn line of pulling coins from the air, a handkerchief from his sleeve and a bunny from a hat. Although he's forced into ever-more humiliating gigs, one day he lucks into quite a nice one that takes him to the Western Isles of Scotland. The job isn't much, but he meets a teenage charwoman who is blown away by his gifts. She attaches herself to the aging trickster, and the two hit the road together, living for a time in Edinburgh in a surrogate father-daughter arrangement.
Chomet filmed this story from a story by the great, sui generis French film comedian Jacques Tati, who originally presented it as a gift to his daughter. Tati never produced a film version, but his daughter granted the rights to Chomet just as his fabulous, reputation-making The Triplets of Belleville was hitting the Cannes Film Festival. Like Tati's films—and like The Triplets of Belleville—The Illusionist contains no dialogue per se, only fragments of song lyrics and staccato outbursts of usually murky French and English.
In effect, The Illusionist is a silent film, which makes it an even more extreme objet d'art: To cinephiles, the silent era was the first lost paradise.
The Illusionist is of a piece with two other recent titles, both animated films about old men. In My Dog Tulip, a lonely codger finds himself when he adopts a dog (which he can't very well converse with). And in Up!, the Disney-Pixar gem from 2009, a widowed old man attracts a needy kid, and we see a breathtaking wordless montage that traces the arc of a lifelong love affair.
Scored to piano figures composed by Chomet, The Illusionist builds to a bravura finale that is as wrenching as anything seen on the screen recently. Anyone who's ever lost illusions will be in tears.