Microsoundscapes In Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist
by Thomas Brett
For me, there is something magical in just about all animation in how it abstracts reality and transforms it into something other–something more vivid and thus more hyperreal. Sylvain Chomet’s movies The Triplets Of Belleville (2003) and The Illusionist (2010) partake in this tradition while also bringing new things to the viewer’s attention, including, surprisingly enough, a focus on sound.
In both Chomet’s films, there is almost no dialogue per se. Instead, characters communicate through an invented ad hoc language–snatches of French and English, grunts of affirmation, deep sighs of relief, and little melodies of curiosity–while using few real words. For the most part, they don’t converse at all and this is precisely where things get interesting. In Chomet’s world, people are almost mute beings who communicate through garbled, non-sensical speech. In a way, by being freed of conventional language use, these characters can focus in on the deeply expressive hue of everyday social interactions–that is, what happens when people come face to face with one another. Without recourse to speaking much, these interactions become living, whole body gestures.
The lack of dialogue also allows the viewer to focus in on the finely articulated soundscapes of the movies. For instance, in The Illusionist we are anchored in through all kinds of environmental microsounds, including: footsteps, snapping fingers, cracking backs, creaking doors, springing couches, rotary dial phones, gurgling bath sinks, bubbling kitchen soup pots, gnawing rabbits, decrepit cars shuffling down a mountainside, single-syllable-uttering acrobats (!), buzzing neon signs, foghorns in the distance, crackling fireplaces, rain and wind, among many other things.
The film allows ample acoustic space for us to really take in these sounds and focus on their completeness, or how they can communicate volumes of affect and delineate physical spaces. In fact, as you get (re)attuned to these everyday sounds, they start to seem, like the animation generally, hyperreal. You also come to realize how deeply sound creates the aura of a particular place and locates us at its center, in perfect position to follow Chomet’s microsounds outwards and around us, transforming the richly rendered 2D animation into an even weightier 3D perceptual experience.
Here is a trailer for the film: