Agency Workers, Blue Arrow, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Festival, Film Review, Flaneur, Immigration, Jacques Tati, Jenners, Jenners Department Store, Magician, Melancholy., New Town, Princes Street, Sylvain Chomet, Tatischeff, The Cameo Cinema, The Illusionist, Trainspotting
Sylvain Chomet’s old-world animation “The Illusionist,” which was released in the UK earlier this month, is based upon a posthumously-recovered script by Jacques Tati, and its protagonist, Tatischeff, is seemingly a version of Tati himself. Tatischeff visits Edinburgh in 1959, twelve years after the city was first in Festival, but if he had come to Edinburgh in August then he would have probably fared much better, perhaps as a street performer on the Royal Mile, bobbing stiffly to and fro, pulling coins out of the air and his roly-poly rabbit out of its hat, to draw good-humoured crowds and keep the Festival mill spinning. As it happens, the illusionist will feature in the golden age of Jenners Department Store, conjuring up bras and perfume in a Princes Street window display.
I cannot think of an internationally-released motion picture which so capitalises upon the undeniable cinematic allure of the Edinburgh cityscape. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) was flatly embarrassed of this city, ironically comparing the squalid reality experienced by its heroin addicts with the dreamy unreality which Edinburgh sells to tourists and outsiders (the bastards filmed most of it in Glasgow). Aside from forays into the Grassmarket and an occasional airing on the Crags, “The Illusionist” is set predominantly in Edinburgh’s wealthy New Town – it particularly reflects the vision of the flaneur on Princes Street and George Street – whilst Tatischeff stays in a hotel on Broughton Place, which is slightly awry of the New Town, although this little street basks fulsomely in its moments of ludicrously-undeserved cinematic immortality. Yet in contrast to the conventional representations of the New Town, these streets are lonely, melancholy, and washed endlessly with cold rain. The far more Gothic Royal Mile and Cowgate are never depicted, and they need not be – Chomet finds the city’s darkness in its most well-lit streets, and, more significantly, he captures Edinburgh’s pain and poverty amidst its affluence.
Edinburgh may be the apple of Chomet’s eye, but his film is ultimately about the experience of the new immigrant to Edinburgh. This is a film about my world and my friends. Tatischeff has the awkwardness and the blankness of an agency worker, and although Blue Arrow is yet to arise from the bowels of hell, the illusionist’s labour is sold by an agent and he earns only a fraction of the money that he creates: an experience familiar to countless foreign workers in this city. He suffers at the hands of abusive and exploitative employers and, like many immigrants to Edinburgh, as in thousands of untold stories, he fails. There will be no loveable shabby apartment in which to spend the evenings drinking with friends, no significant people waiting at certain points in the future, no days exploring the city and finding that there is more than can ever be explored, no Hogmanay, no Festival, no summer on the Meadows or afternoon walks around Leith docks. It could have happened to any of us, it could have happened to us all.
Magicians may not exist, as Tatischeff concedes, but metamorphoses do, and the illusionist fails to adapt, or to reinvent himself. It is unclear whether Alice is his beloved or a symbolic daughter, although the film would have been ruined if they had been shown having sex, but the illusionist cannot give her anything more magical than this city and, despite the temporary impediment of her all-too-obviously English toyboy, Edinburgh is hers. By now, she would be in her early sixties, a chatty Morningside dame as content as a cat.
[You need to see this film in the Cameo cinema because it is seen in this film. Ed.]