Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Tightfisted

Ah, school holidays. The arrangements, the moods, the dramas…

I wanted my children to see some classic entertainment and there was a new Sylvain Chomet film in town, showing at the immaculately renovated Capitol on Dominion Road.

Who could forget Chomet’s mesmerizing The Triplets of Bellville? Do you still remember Grandmama with the built-up shoe who first tries to interest her ward in becoming a concert pianist? No? Well, perhaps it’s because she fails.

Then she notices that he keeps a signed picture of his father and mother lounging on the former’s bicycle. Further inspection leads her to discover an album filled with news clippings of the Tour de France.

Little Champion of the dark-ringed Gallic eyes is as delighted with his trike as he was with his dog, Bruno, who grows up into a slobbering mass that struggles up the stairs to bark at each passing train – without fail.

Do you remember that marvelous montage where Grandmama’s high peasant house is out in the country, with a distance view of the Eiffel Tower? Then an old Shackleton flies overhead in the autumnal air, followed by encroaching building cranes and two Boeings in the snowy winter, followed by a cut to the house having had to do a Pisa-like accommodation for the flyover railway track, giving Bruno his raison d’être?

Champion and Grandmama are no longer country folk. They have been swallowed by the city and she and Bruno assiduously assist Champion in becoming a star cyclist, bulging thighs, calves and all.

But Champion is abducted during the uphill stage of the Tour de France and taken to Bellville, where everybody eats hamburgers and is hugely, massively overweight. No prizes for guessing where that might be. He will now cycle on the spot, for money, and he will not try to escape. He will endure.

Grandmama and Bruno impossibly follow and end up with the very politically incorrect Triplets of yore, who are now three cheerful old crones, with a nod to the three uglies in that Scottish play. Un-PC? They drop hand grenades in water to catch frogs, which they eat. Macbethian witches? They lick their amphibians to hallucinate for kicks.

Grandmaternal and canine love – with a dose of triplesque élan - will triumph over all Mafia-like odds.

Now, it’s been well publicized that Chomet was so taken with Edinburgh that he decided to settle in Scotland, and The Illusionist was supposed to be a love story for and about that country.

Using the template of a script by the late Jacques Tati – he of the long legs, odd walk and good manners – our magician’s looks are clearly based on his original creator. In fact, somewhere in the film he happens into a cinema and there’s the “real” Tati on the screen.

The magician’s name is Tatischeff, no doubt a reference to Russian émigrés in Paris, but his breed of old fashioned magician is dying out and he’s saved by a perpetually drunk and cheerful Scot. Tatischeff heads to the land of the thistle, shown with all Chomet’s satisfying attention to detail and breathtaking watercolours.

In Scotland he will meet a young cleaner who will accompany him to Edinburgh, he will do everything and anything to buy her good clothes, and she will fall in love with a handsome Scot in the Sean Connery mould. Around them other artists will go to pieces. And Tatischeff becomes as tightfisted as a, well, Scot?

As with the Triplets, Tati and even Mr Bean, dialogue is paired down to a virtually redundant minimum, but my children and their friends were getting bored. So was I. In fact, I was so disappointed that I took out The Triplets of Bellville just to cheer us all up again.

Every expectation created in Chomet's second film was unfulfilled. There wasn’t a goal, as in training Champion up or him saving him from the clutches of capitalist greed. Having a “down” ending is all good and well, even for a film that is supposed to include children, but a bitter ending - like a happy one - still has to be deserved.

Neil Sonnekus


Last week I failed to mention the lead actress’s name in Never Let Me Go, even though it was on the accompanying publicity poster. Carey Mulligan’s performance was every bit as good as Keira Knightley’s.

I also failed to mention that the film was adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Though I haven’t read the book, I thought the film was brilliant – Immaculate Incompletion might have been a better headline - and probably truer to the original than the adaptation of another Ishiguro novel The Remains of the Day, whose makers Alan Parker called the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking.

Lastly, there is also something special in a department that is usually male-dominated. Rachel Portman’s score, especially at the beginning and end of the film, is exquisite.


Lacking publicity material I hereby post an earlier photograph of the honourable critic in the days when he still had property, some dark hair and money to afford a haircut. These days he is an emigre, like Monsieur Tatischeff.

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