After leaving my university town of Glasgow in search of a media career in London, I have often found myself trying to preserve my Scottish identity. By living and working in a global metropolis, I fear my Scottishness will eventually become so diluted that I’ll lose touch with my Aberdeenshire upbringing.
Nostalgia can be very misleading but on recently watching Slyvain’s Chomet’s animation The Illusionist , I immediately knew that I wanted to return to Scotland for the festival season. Chomet’s visual love affair with the Scottish capital is a melancholy fairy tale and offers a romantic throwback to a seemingly more innocent era of steam engines, roast fires, whisky drams, red post boxes and candlelit evenings.
The Illusionist is about an elderly French magician who has become increasingly marginalised and ignored after the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Unable to sustain his vaudeville show in France, the magician travels over the English Channel and performs on stage in empty theatres in the far north of Scotland. Such is the remoteness of the Hebrides in the 1950s they represent one of the few remaining indigenous communities in Britain unaffected by the cultural impact of America.
On a remote Gaelic island, the magician meets a young girl called Alice, who secretly follows him back to Edinburgh. They quickly form a paternal relationship and spend their lives surrounded by eccentric miscreants, loners and forgotten souls. They are the moths of the world with troubled hearts, living beyond their means in a cosy domestic abode. Struggling to communicate in their adopted tongue, the pair slowly drift apart in a sad and beautiful tale of two outsiders trying to find their way in a lonely world.
Slyvain Chomet creates a melancholy vision of Scottish capital and it is set around the death of the British Empire. This fading spectre of imperialism would have been keenly felt in Edinburgh, which even to this day represents a kitsch romantic version of Scotland wrapped in kilts and colonial union jacks.
Chomet’s love affair with Scotland explores the green fringes of the city and takes you on a cinematic journey northwards towards the Forth Railway Bridge and the luminous fields of Fife. While to the south you can marvel at the gentle rolling hills of Lothian, which fades aimlessly into the horizon like an electric green sea.
Edinburgh is a beautiful place and during the summer it is comparable to classic European cities like Paris or Prague, especially when every accent in earshot is almost inevitably from outside of these shores. What is so remarkable about The Illusionist is the grainy imperfection it lends to its adopted landscape. This beautiful animation captures the sensation of walking through the Old Town at night, where it literally feels like you are walking in ink.
Chomet’s elegiac vision of Écosse is tinged with a homely sentimentality and dangerous as this might be, I am looking forward to walking in the Illusionist’s footsteps this summer. The textural grace of the Scottish tongue may be slipping from my grasp but I hope to reacquaint myself with my homeland, while listening to the sound of pneumatic tyres rippling over the cobbles of the past.