I suppose that people rarely desire to feel sadness or seek out that particular emotion. Yet there exists much art that instills that very feeling. So maybe we do desire it. We might not ever want to be sad at any particular time, but we need to know what it feels like, why things hurt, and why we sense loss. The artistic production and reception of sadness seeks not to simply instill sadness but to make us aware of the human conditions which both produce it and can, eventually, alleviate it. At their very best, works of deep sadness make us feel more human and, in the end, happy to feel human.
My ramblings on sadness and its place in art are a direct response to my viewing of Sylvain Chomet’s brilliant animated feature, The Illusionist (2010). Chomet’s previous animated creation was the wonderful The Triplets of Belleville (2003). After The Illusionist ended, in heart wrenching fashion, I could only respond with sadness.
The Illusionist tells the story of an aging French magician (the illusionist) who, in 1959, increasingly finds his skills and talents underappreciated and overlooked. As the music and entertainment halls that once held acts like his now book new musical acts and show cinema, the labor of the individual performer is increasingly displaced. Sophisticated urban crowds in Paris and London dismiss him as they search for new forms of entertainment and technology. The manual “illusions” that this gentleman can perform pale in comparison to the new “magic” of cinema and the energy of rock and roll.
Not until the illusionist ends up in a remote Scottish village does he find an audience that gladly accepts his gifts. The more remote areas that have not yet been conquered by late twentieth century entertainments can still be genuinely enthralled by the magic acts.
One of the those who become enthralled with the Frenchman’s magical abilities is Alice, a young woman working as a maid in an inn. When the illusionist departs the village, Alice departs as well, and the two of them form a loving bond that drives the rest of the narrative. They are misplaced as a father and daughter, but each of them attempts to care for and love the other. Both display a tender selflessness.
Indeed, throughout the film, the animated characters, who are visually two-dimensional, display the full three dimensionality of human emotions. Chomet’s skills brilliantly show that traditional animation can render subjects with a full range of emotion and humanity.
The duo end up in Edinburgh, where the illusionist finds work in a music hall. The crowds are sparse, but he nonetheless performs his act with the precise diligence and grace. It does not matter two him whether two or two thousand people watch him. He remains undaunted in his practice of and belief in his craft.
Of course, this is what makes the film so undeniably sad. It is obvious that he and his skills are no longer wanted. He no longer has a place in the world, and yet we love and desperately wish for him to recover that bygone time. The hotel in which the illusionist and Alice stay is populated by other figures who have lost their footholds in the world: circus performers, a clown, and a ventriloquist. All are hanging on by a thread. To make ends meet they must sell their props, which are displayed in pawn shop windows. No longer are they the invaluable objects of art and skillful entertainment; these items now sit alongside other discarded items as cheap second-hand trinkets, which of course is the obvious metaphor for how the world treats the down-on-their-luck performers.
While Chomet wants us to feel and perceive the loss that these characters experience, his message is not that technology and a rapidly advancing world need to be halted so that we can return to a more Edenic time. The advancements of rock and roll, television, and film all of which contribute to the displacement of the illusionist and others, are not scorned or belittled. They simply are. To some they are new, scary, and menacing. To others they are new, exciting, and full of possibilities.
The Illusionist does not ask us to lament the fact that the old has been replaced by the new, but it does ask us to not forget. We can embrace the new, as Alice does, but that does not mean that we should neglect that which is or will be displaced. As Chomet’s film so wonderfully displays, there still might be some magic left in those past practices upon which we may draw. And occasionally, they may still have the power to awe us.
Chomet’s animation techniques seem to parallels his narrative’s themes. The vast majority of animation produced for the screen is now done through computers. Yet Chomet’s brilliantly drawn scenes appear as a brilliant collection of vivid Victorian era watercolors. Despite the intense feelings of loss, Chomet always provides a visual brightness. It is possible that The Illusionist‘s uniqueness in a CGI world makes it stand out, but regardless of why it does, I can vividly remember what it looks like much more than I can Cars 2 or Toy Story 3.
Watching The Illusionist made me terribly sad, which, paradoxically, was a wonderful thing.