L'illusionniste Fails to Work its Magic

Best Animated Feature Film nominee L’illusionniste (The Illusionist) came out on DVD in the USA last week. I looked forward to seeing it, given that I enjoyed Sylvain Chomet’s Belleville Rendezvous (The Triplets of Belleville)—who can forget that loaded, graceful scene where the men turn into monkeys?—and plenty of critics gave L’illusionniste their stamps of approval. Ten minutes in, though, I was annoyed, and by the credits, I was hopping angry. Chomet’s latest has enough gender-based weirdness to rival any Disney movie.

The story, essentially, is about a past-his-prime magician who takes a young woman under his wing. How young is Alice, exactly? This is never clear, but given that she has a job cleaning a hotel/bar when they meet (Cinderella/Prince dynamic ahoy!), and that no one seems to look for her after she runs away, she seems most likely to be in her late teens or twenties. When we meet Alice, she is a textbook cliché of mousiness, to the point where She’s All That comes to mind.

"L'illusionniste"'s Alice, a small, blunt-cut-brown-haired girl with dark clothes and an apron, washes a white shirt in a lake while it rains. Image via empireonline.com.

Who’s going to take off her metaphorical glasses?

The manner of their relationship is set when the titular illusionist buys Alice bright, dressy ballet flats to replace her brown work boots. Her old footwear was falling apart, but fancy, hyperfeminine shoes for a girl with a cleaning job? Really? Alice is apparently more charmed by this impractical gift than I am, and she stows away to follow him out of the country.

I perked up a little at this point; after all, Alice is proactive in fleeing her old life. Unfortunately, that may be her one decisive move, and it serves only to keep her close to her all-consuming father/savior figure. Alice is the sole character with a name, but rather than humanize her, this serves to categorize her as an object, someone people talk about rather than to. Just as experimental films like Conversations with Other Women use a lack of names to make their protagonists into everypeople, Alice’s name in a sea of anonymity makes her seem important, but only as an idea. Her cheerfulness and simplicity, not to mention her housekeeping of the pair’s apartment, add up to a—dare I say it?—Manic Pixie Dream Daughter.

The journeys of the elder and Alice, inasmuch as they exist, are about becoming more successful and more “feminine,” respectively. Alice spends an inordinate amount of the movie staring at women’s clothing in store windows and asking for more gifts. This occurs in gestures rather than dialogue; like Belleville Rendezvous, L’illusionniste includes little actual speaking, which is interesting stylistically but further erases the opportunity for Alice to be nuanced. Like an old-school princess, she doesn’t go to school and grows up showing scant interest in anything other than her pseudo-father and increasingly “womanly” outfits.

Condescension toward femininity, though, begins even in the few minutes before Alice appears:

Animated boy band performs on a stage. The lead singer, who is blond with red lips, a pink shirt, a white suit, and pink-and-white boots, is dipping and singing into his microphone with tiny legs parted at the knee. His bandmates are all brown-haired and similarly made-up, but they're in dark suits. The drummer's set reads "The Britoons". Image via allocine.com.

Femmy dudes who sing. Don’tcha hate ‘em?

I get it: Chomet likes to employ caricatures to make a point, and boy band members can be effeminate. These barely-characters, however, skip, giggle, and actually do that wrist-flip homophobes use to make fun of queers, and it’s clearly all supposed to be hilarious. The band’s legions of ecstatic female fans are drawn equally grotesquely.

**SPOILERS AHEAD!** If you’re determined to watch L’illusionniste, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs.

Still, none of this prepared me for the ridiculous ending. The magician, who is now attracting reasonable-sized crowds, ignores Alice more and more, slamming doors in her face and all-around being a crappy fake dad now that he has something fun to keep his attention. Enter the new love interest, a young man who approaches Alice when she’s all dolled up and smarting from that door-slamming business. She admires him first but remains passive, natch. When “Dad” spies her talking (emphasis on “spies”) to another man, he packs up and abandons her immediately, leaving only a quintessentially self-pitying note: Magicians do not exist.

The Ebert Presents crew praised L’illusionniste for being “not creepy,” as if that’s some great feat, but the father-equals-boyfriend equation is uncomfortable and utterly unsubtle. Why is the title character acting like a betrayed husband if his connection to Alice is so innocent? What little we see of the new couple revolves around the young man fixing Alice’s hair and giving her space under his umbrella, parental gestures that hammer home the message, in case someone didn’t get it, that Alice Needs A Man.

The illusionist spies on Alice and her new boyfriend from behind a coat rack as they're walking down the street. It's sunny, and the characters are in front of a movie theatre called "Cameo". Alice is wearing a blue dress with white trim at the bottom, her boyfriend is wearing an orange shirt with dark pants, and the magician's clothes are dark.

How dare she?!


While the name of this feature has caused understandable confusion, L’illusionniste has more in common with the small, Malkovich-led film The Great Buck Howard than 2006’s The Illusionist (or that 2006 magician movie that wasn’t The Illusionist). The Great Buck Howard shines in comparison, however, given that Buck’s (male) assistant was A) an adult; B) a paid employee; and C) aware that his boss’ demanding and possessive behavior was uncool.

Those films were all dude-focused… but then, this one is too. In the end, Alice’s high percentage of screen time didn’t even land her a spot on the posters:

"The Illusionist" USA poster, via beachtheatre.com: dark blue background with a spotlight on the yellow title "THE ILLUSIONIST." A white rabbit is hiding in the "O," and an old man in a red suit is standing to the right, holding a stool and apparently loo   "L'illusionniste" French poster, via elseptimoarte.net: identical to the USA poster except that the background is black and the capital-lettered title is tan.

Passed over for an ill-tempered rabbit.

And the animation? Frankly, it could not have saved L’illusionniste for me, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen in Chomet’s previous work or Hayao Miyazaki’s catalogue. Even its most gorgeous scenes, involving trains and landscapes, just make me think of the better ones in Spirited Away, an adult-friendly animated film with a strong girl protagonist.

While I’ve heard nothing yet about Chomet’s next film, I can wholeheartedly say L’illusionniste had made my interest disappear.

by Deb Jannerson
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

A noble argument...but...

Please keep in mind this is a period piece set in Scotland. So your modern American view of how 'things should be' doesn't really apply here. In those times, girls her age did need a man. That's their culture.

Also, your comment regarding the magician being a crappy fake Dad is kind of a stretch, as Alice herself chose to follow him and he made absolutely no promises or gestures that he was willing to take on that role for her. All he did was take her in when she requested he do so. Why is he automatically obligated now to be her 'Fake Dad'? He 'abandons' her, insinuates that he has a responsibility to care for her, which (as is shown she's capable of taking care of herself as a cleaning girl), he does not.

Yes, he buys her ultra-feminized things, but why would a guy like him know what is or is not appropriate for a girl of her age and status? He wanted to make her happy, but I would argue that she came to expect those things. She coveted (adorably fashionable) clothing and compelled him to buy it for her.

The note, was, I agree-a little self-pitying, but he figured if she can make her own decisions to start dating a man, then she must be grown and doesn't need seeing to any longer. Him turning her back out to the world once he knew she'd be okay is fair enough at that age. Did you expect that your parents would take care of you at home until you married? Probably not, so why impose that on her? Life lessons can be learned when one is free to live through them, and that's what he gave her.

I do agree that some of the character types were stereotypical, but-again-think of the time period and location. It is absolutely impossible to realistically judge this film with a classic feminist perspective, because it just simply doesn't apply here. What other opportunities would an orphan bar-cleaning-girl who was in her late teens have had in Scotland in the 20's and really how vastly different was it here in the US at the same time? Guess what? Not much.


I see what you're saying, but I'm not inclined to excuse sexist depictions based on authenticity. Given that <i>L'illusionniste</i> was made in the last few years for today's audiences, regardless of when the idea for the story was conceived, I would argue that a modern reading of it is absolutely appropriate, and, in fact, inevitable. Even with exactly the same plot points and no additional "opportunities," the character of Alice could have been much stronger and more nuanced, and the condescension toward the feminine was unnecessary. I stand by my arguments.

Trouble with developing

Trouble with developing material conceived of a long time ago—it's already been visited by the <a href="http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/09/the-suck-fairy">The Suck Fairy</a> and its handmaidens The Racism Fairy, The Homophobia Fairy, and The Sexism Fairy.

And it's too bad. I was looking forward to this one.


Suck Fairy. That's amazing.

"That's their culture."

I've never been able to swallow the "that's their culture" argument. While certain social ideas of course change from culture to culture ("culture" can include time, place or both), dismissing everything foreign to you the viewer as "just their culture" borders dangerously on stereotyping people. While culture in the "back then" days was no doubt different, and some ideals from that period would certainly clash with our own, the reality is that "now" and "back then" (and "here" and "over there," for that matter) were and are peopled with many different people with different views and beliefs who cannot be lumped into a simplistic category.

The "that's their culture" argument doesn't stand up when you consider the changes that were happening in the world in the '20s, with women's gaining of the vote and the evolution of the modern single woman, as well as the actual achievements of women during that time in Europe and America. It also doesn't stand up when you consider that older stories from the same rough geographic place feature vibrant and strong female characters. And it really doesn't stand up, as Deb pointed out, when you consider that "L'Illusioniste" was not actually created in the 1920s, but in the 2010s, and is made for a contemporary audience.

Exploring and examining the now-considered-sexist customs of the day would be one thing, but that doesn't seem to be what's happening. Likewise, it seems that Alice is not ever shown as having a reason for acting the way she does. Even if she was a passive heroine, I might be able to buy it if she had some kind of backstory that explained why she was like that, but it seems that she's supposed to be an "everygirl" kind of figure, and she seems poorly put-together.

Which is a shame, because "Belleville Rendezvous" was fantastic. My favorite scene is when the triplets go frog hunting with grenades.


What have the 1920s got to do with this film? And as for the evolution of the 'modern single woman' - you seem to be suggesting that 1920s Scotland was some kind of feminist utopia. It wasn't.

There are examples of strong, powerful, crusading women in any decade or century you wish to examine, it doesn't mean that these represent the experience of women of a particular culture as a whole.

The script was written by a 49 year old Frenchman in 1956, by the way.

Nowhere in my post did I

Nowhere in my post did I claim that the 20s were a "feminist utopia." I'm well aware that it wasn't. My point was that women gained new ground with voting and social options, and so the idea of "oh, well, any women needed a man to survive back then" isn't true across the board. By saying any era or culture is entirely one way or another, and using "that's the culture" to explain away the sweeping generalization is always problematic--kind of like the sweeping generalization you're making now about my post.

As for my reference to the 1920s, it comes from this line in the Anonymous post to whom I had originally responded: "What other opportunities would an orphan bar-cleaning-girl who was in her late teens have had in Scotland in the 20's and really how vastly different was it here in the US at the same time? Guess what? Not much."

'That's their culture' again

'Please keep in mind this is a period piece set in Scotland. So your modern American view of how 'things should be' doesn't really apply here. In those times, girls her age did need a man. That's their culture.'

*deep breath*

Owl, thanks for chiming in about this incredibly patronising and xenophobic statement. I find it pretty astonishing not only that the time gap is being used as an excuse for portraying a working class Scottish girl as a dependent weakling, but also that her nationality was brought into this equation at all. 'Anonymous', who I suspect is a man, has almost certainly not visited the British Isles and might find the reality of Scottish culture even nowadays quite a shock.

Scotland at that time was known for having some of the worst slums in the British Empire (though the rumour is that the worst were actually in St Anns, Nottingham, England, which is still full of gun crime). Thanks to the appalling conditions in Glasgow's slums, for example, it's been found that Glaswegians in the *modern day* have a massively inflated rate of autoimmune diseases - children who survived infancy had to have a hyperdeveloped immune system, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now born with bodies that basically start attacking themselves after a certain age or when triggered by certain things. Life was hard, and the culture which Anon so glibly refers to was based around self-reliance, pride, toughness and very often a work ethic informed by religion. My view on this is canted because of the deprived and mildly sectarian (the opposing religion in an old rivalry to my Irish mother) background that my Scottish former partner originates from, but I can hardly imagine Scotswomen of those times feeling that they NEEDED a man unless it was because they needed to get laid without winding up with an illegitimate child - or because they wanted to move out of some shoddy housing which they shared with their parents, but even that I'm hesitant to say. Anonymous appears to be projecting some kind of romantic culture which never existed onto Scotland. Even out in the countryside, those who remained after the Scots lairds' clearances (when the aristocracy realised Cheviot sheep were more profitable than tenants) had an incredibly harsh life and responded with a resilient culture. This cheesy Celtic Monarch of the Glen crap in which some people indulge when thinking of Caledonia NEVER EXISTED. It's NOT REAL.

Also, there were Scottish suffragettes. These were people who had taken full advantage of movements to educate the poor, and free libraries - or else middle-class matriarchal householders. They weren't prancing around waiting for their 'prince to come', they were fighters.

It's one thing to complain

It's one thing to complain that you find the depiction of the boyband to be tasteless and stereotypical, but you can hardly complain about Chomet drawing grotesque caricatures - that's what he does! Belleville Rendezvous is full of them.

I'm not sure if I watched a different film from you, but I remember the second half of the film showing the magician's long, slow descent into obscurity - his career goes down the tubes rather than going to strength to strength. I see it very much as Alice growing apart from him, rather than the other way round. Alice herself is an ambiguous character - you could interpret her as being resourceful and go-getting (her choice to follow the magician, her choice to make a new life for herself in Edinburgh) She doesn't NEED a man, she chooses one. On the other hand, you could also criticise her for being so conventionally in her choices, and as being vapid and obsessed with pretty things, shoes, dresses etc (Incidentally, you really can't understand why a woman working in a menial cleaning job would want glittery shoes rather than sensible boots? Escapism! Glamour, romance - everything her life of drudgery on the Scottish island lacks) I'm a feminist, but I don't need every single female character in a book or film to be a stereotypically "strong woman" (whatever one of those is) Alice is a more complex character than your review would suggest.

Ultimately, this isn't Alice's story - that's why it's called The Illusionist and that's why she's not on the poster. I see it as being about the loss of innocence. People no longer want the craft of the old-fashioned professional magician, they want glitz and glamour. Alice goes from having a childish sense of wonder at the magician's tricks to cynical worldliness and materialism, only being interested in things that can be bought. I found the gradual deterioration of their relationship to be really moving. It's not as if either of them are at fault, they just inevitably grow apart. The magician's out of step, his old-fashioned values no longer fashionable. I see his note at the end to be ruefully accepting rather than self-pitying - his tricks are just illusions, there is no real magic that can sustain his way of living in modern times.

Also, I'm not sure how helpful it is to use American romantic comedies like She's All That as reference points here - it's a very different kind of film.

Agree with this 100%. The

Agree with this 100%.

The depiction of the boyband is key to the era, I think. The advent of acts like The Beatles brought with it a different type of masculinity to what was the norm at the time. For example, my uncle was a surprise baby born nearly 20 years after the last brother in his family. He was a child of the sixties and the clothes he wore and the hairstyles he sported horrified his older brothers and father, who were from a mining community (think Zoolander, though he wasn't that fabulous). His fashion choices were seen to his family as worryingly homosexual.

The magician in this story is very much of a different era and the boyband is indicative of how alien the new culture is to him, and how his time has now passed.

For the record, before anyone asks am I a man, I'm a feminist from England born in the 70s. My mother would have been a young woman from the working class in the late 50s. Although she imparted some feminist ideals - get a university education, don't give up work when you have children; she was, like many of her culture, rather traditional and conservative. She liked nice clothes, shoes and aspired for something better; better meaning material wealth. She also aspired to marriage and children as central to her worth.

I think the reviewer is bringing her own narrow values to this review. I really dislike the vogue for "proto-feminists" (it pretty much amounts to 'feisty women! wayhey!') in period pieces. As I've said above, there were independent, and sometimes powerful women in any era you care to look at (I speak as a British student of British history). This doesn't necessarily translate in the majority of women's experience. Ireland for example had a very egalitarian ethos in the formation of the Republic, but, well, you can see how that turned out. Divorce became legal in the 1990s, women still don't get the right to choose.

A lot of films make me sigh with their depiction of women. However I seldom get angry unless those depictions are totally offensive. What I accept is that the majority of films are made by men. That more films aren't made by women is a shame, but I don't feel I should be angry every time a man makes a film from his own point of view, a view forged by his time and his culture. This is a film made from a script written by a man born before the Titanic sank. I don't think we should judge him, or the film, by 2011 feminist standards. Dear god, talk about setting yourself up for disappointment.

If we can't look at it by

If we can't look at it by 2011 standards, then what standards should we be using? The "oh, it's okay that I as a modern viewer take issue with this because the creator is a product of his culture so I can't make an assessment of anything he does" standard? The fact remains, as I believe someone stated earlier, that while the time and culture of the creator certainly factors into this film's characteristics, we must also acknowledge that the film was released in 2011 (10?) and therefore is produced for a modern audience, an audience who views things with 2011 standards. You can't expect a modern audience, even one with a broad cultural and historical background, to simply shut off their own sets of standards. After all, we're products of our time and culture, too.

Oh! The assumptions...

No I'm not a man, and yes I have spent a good deal of time in Scotland, which is one of the reasons why I chose to respond to this particular post. I'm nearly 40 and my opinions have evolved during travels all over the world, realizing the reality of women elsewhere. Not that I think everyone has it worse than Americans, I don't. But in this particular context, and yes, I have to grant you the film was made for today's audiences, modern uber-feminist standards really cannot fully be employed here.

Some have argued, 'regardless of when the film was conceived' that it should now be tailored to our 'standards'. Well, not only was the film conceived MANY years ago, from a man, from a foreign culture, the film was set in the 20's! Why on earth would you walk into this movie expecting a poor bar-cleaner girl to behave in any other way than she did? She wasn't a woman, she wouldn't have had many options, and the fact that she had a job at all speaks to her work ethic and fortitude. But she clearly was behaving like a teenager and you can't expect her to be a joan of arc, you know? She was a typical teenager and it was as much about his story as hers. She's not supposed to be a 'heroine', she's supposed to be a curious, parentless, penniless, hopeful little girl that is wowed by cosmopolitan things. She's on adventure, she's not intended to be a role model for today's young girls.

Yes, sometimes taking off the 'everything has got to be feminist or it sucks' glasses can give you new perspectives on other people and how they live and not just forcing culture to behave in the way that you think is right. I'm a woman, I'm for women's rights, of course, but this goes way beyond that. You have an expectation for her and how she's supposed to live and, if you're really a feminist, really and truly, you would support her decisions because of the sole fact that she's a female making her own decisions. I argue that your feminist viewpoint is actually anti-fem. Just because women don't behave the way you think they should, doesn't make them oppressed, exploited, anti-feminist, etc. I appreciate your views and am proud of all the women speaking up in this forum about the subject of feminism in pop culture. The dialog is really the most important thing, not who's right.

In response to Owl, above, specifically, I do concede historical context can be balanced with a modern view, but hopefully it would make you feel lucky you have the choices you do.

Context and failings

Consider it through this lens: The script was written by a father who abandoned and never reconciled with his daughter. If Alice is sadly flat, perhaps that only serves to underline the real tragedy, that Jacques Tati never knew her. I find it terribly sad that he could not conceive of all the nuance he missed by not being in her life and that in his regret all the amends that he could aspire to were to shower her with material goods. In his disappearance, there is an awareness of his irrelevance to her; she is grown with her life before her, and he is a stranger who doesn't know how to undo his damage without creating more.


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