Returning to Silence: Telling a Story Without Dialogue in The Illusionist

In trying to find a family-friendly movie a couple of weeks ago, I was faced with what appeared to be a slew of movies that were either too geared towards adults (True Grit and The King’s Speech) or too geared towards children (Justin Beber’s Never Say Never and Gnomeo & Juliet). Luckily there was one local theater that was showing The Illusionist, the newest film by the French group that created The Triplets of Belville. At first there were concerns about subtitles, until someone who had seen the film mentioned that the film had no real dialogue to speak of. While people occasionally spoke, it was all in unintelligible sounds.

Seeing the movie, there were in fact portions of the speech that were intelligible, though they mostly consisted of “hello”s. Rather than indicate specific words, speech was used to indicate to the viewer that dialogue was taking place, a bit of the tone of the conversation, and perhaps what language the speaker was using. Anything the viewer understands about the dialogue is through the visual context. The effect is similar to the sensation of watching a movie in an unfamiliar foreign language. Though the viewer maybe not understand what is being said, this is not to say that the viewer has no idea what’s going on. Yet, while in most movies the viewer would be left confused and lost without dialogue, The Illusionist uses this lack of dialogue to shift the viewer’s interaction with the film.

The story is of an old French magician who goes to perform at a small Scottish village. There he meets a young girl fascinated by his ability to perform magic, giving her those things she desires without any apparent struggle or cost. Yet, she fails to see that this is just a facade, and that in order to give her those things she desires, the magician must work himself to the bone, doing degrading and exhausting work all to allow her to become that vision of a beautiful woman presented to her in store windows. As her requests continue, she transforms from a pour country girl, to the reflection of the manikins she so admired. The process pushes the magician to his breaking point, and he finally quits when forced to degrade himself as a living advertisement. Just as the decreased interest in magic has left someone who was once a famous magician barely scraping by at the beginning of the film, so too does the magic in the interaction of the man and girl decrease over the course of the film. What first strikes the audience as a sweet and happy relationship quickly falls to one where the girl seems selfish and unaware, leaving the her to finally encounter the end of the magic and beginning of reality when she meets a man who, though he cares for her, will not give her everything she desires.

The Illusionist utilizes its lack of intelligible the dialogue to tell a story that is both graceful and simple. Like a book without pictures, the viewer is left to imagine the other half of the story. Though I read reviews before going to see the film, I found myself disagreeing with them at points over the plot, and I am certain that readers will disagree with portions of my above description. This is not because of some error on their part or mine (hopefully), but rather because the movie relies on the gestures, pauses, expressions and slight movements that are far too often disposable in most movies. The girl’s belief a shower of bird feather to be snow is portrayed through her efforts to warm herself and adding coals to the fire. The magician’s worry that the rabbit has gone into the stew is shown through his searching in a panic through the apartment for his longtime companion, and his expression of dread and sorrow at the prospect of eating the stew. The glance of a young poor girl at the heroine is so like the way she looked at girls in the city at the beginning of the film. It is on these fine points of the animation that the entire plot rides, and through the lens of these details that we are able to attempt to understand a movie where the two main characters do not speak the the same language, themselves often left using gestures in place of words to communicate.

There is something splendid about a movie that leaves the audience to interpret what has occurred, just as we are left in life constantly looking out at the world and in at our ourselves in an attempt to understand what has transpired.

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