The New York Times has its special “Holiday Movies” section this week, which means no DVD column but those so inclined can read my one-sentence plot summaries — carefully distilled from official studio press releases! — on the films we have to look forward to this November and December. I’ve also got an interview with the French animator Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”) whose new film, “The Illusionist,” is based on an unproduced treatment by Jacques Tati and stars a reasonable animated approximation of the comedian in a role that Tati may or may not have conceived for himself.
The origins of the project remain rather murky, and the waters have been further stirred by the family of Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, who is said to be Tati’s daughter through a relationship the comedian had with an Austrian woman, Herta Schiel, with whom he performed at the Lido de Paris during the German Occupation and subsequently abandoned. According to Richard McDonald, Helga Schiel’s son, Tati wrote the screenplay as a way of addressing the existence of the child he never publicly acknowledged. Last May, Roger Ebert published, without commentary, a long letter from McDonald outlining his case, and criticizing Chomet for changing details of the treatment in a way that “subverts the man’s only redeeming response towards his daughter he inconsiderately abandoned.”
Chomet says that the changes he imposed — for example, trading the original setting, Prague, for Edinburgh, where Chomet had his animation studio at the time — were made for personal, artistic reasons, in his role as the director of the film.
I don’t have a dog in this race, and it’s not a dispute that can be settled without access to the private thoughts of individuals long dead. But it does suggest how little we know about Tati, who was no more Monsieur Hulot in his private life than Chaplin was the Little Tramp. The larger question is, does it matter? “The Illusionist” will be released in the US on Dec. 25.