"The Illusionist" (2006)

We begin with a face - the face of Eisenheim the Illusionist (Ed Norton), micro-contorted by the effort of making something (we aren't quite sure what yet) appear. He is on a stage, a bare stage, set in the midst of an indeterminately 19th century world (in which there appear to be quite good electric lights in Eastern European castles, and where color film projection was available to the police in small towns) and surrounded by people with tortured accents and the desperate need to believe that his powers aren't illusions.

As soon as a image begins to appear out of the mist beside Eisenheim and a hubbub burbles out of the audience, a police inspector (Paul Giamatti) steps onto the stage and arrests the illusionist, nearly instigating a riot in the process. He returns to his boss, the "progressive" but despotic prince (Rufus Sewell, who I adore from his work in Stoppard's plays, despite rumors that he is not a terribly nice human being), and proceeds to unfold the clunky back story of Eisenheim's humble beginnings and doomed love for the "progressive" but domestically abusive prince's fiancée.

At this point, we are five minutes into the film, and D has already lost patience. Why would they give us these melodramatic flashbacks before we have any reason to care about these characters, he asks me. I don't have a response - I too am quite irritated, but I hold out hope that the film will improve. It doesn't. It is hamfistedly edited and shot, plot-holey, lacking in character development and overly proud of its sole plot gimmick. Although it was only an hour and forty minutes long, and filled with actors we admire (not including the rather uninspiring Jessica Biel, who, poor thing, might be perfectly good in other things for all I know) we found ourselves constantly checking our watches and attempting to will time into greater fleet-footedness.

The Prestige, I assured D, who hadn't seen it, was infinitely better, although it too relied too strongly on the loopiness of its plot to ever be called brilliant. It had a greater sense, I think, of how to navigate our dual desires when seeing magic - the wish for it to be true (and thus affirm another layer of existence that will lend meaning to the material world) and the need to underscore the legitimacy of logic by believing it to be an elaborate, clever trick (thus asserting our ability to control and contain the world we perceive through our senses).

There was one aspect of The Illusionist which lent it greater depth, and which, although it was largely unsuccessful, is still worth highlighting: the way in which the film asks us to contemplate the connections between magic, illusion and film. Even if the hero's name weren't so insistently like cinematic innovator Sergei Eisenstein's that I mistype it every single time, this strategy would quickly become obvious through the film's playful use of the dwindling-circle transitions known as iris wipes and other editing strategies that self-consciously evoke early film (although certainly not films of this historical period, no matter how nebulously defined it is). In case we hadn't caught on to the subtlety of this strategy (which is known for drawing attention to the way film directs the spectator's gaze and controls it, thus preventing the audience from immersing themselves in the naturalism of a narrative, and is thus rather a bludgeoning tactic if mishandled), the film's plot draws the connection for you. While the inspector is attempting to discover how Eisenheim makes his apparitions appear, he questions some film projectionists, who show him a jerky, feeble approximation of how it could be done. He rolls his eyes.

If the intention of The Illusionist is - as the title would imply - to make us ponder the nature of cinematic magic, and consider how we are tricked into sincerity or belief by a medium that its both verisimilar and supernatural in its abilities to make things appear which are not there (to fold and layer time and place), then its downfall comes in the frequent use of contemporary cinematic magic to "realize" Eisenheim's illusions (every time I use that word, I mutter an echo of Arrested Development's failed magician Gob - "Not tricks, Dad - ilLUsions! Tricks are something a whore does for money!"). The CGI and other filmic trickery that is obviously at work makes the magic less interesting, because we as an audience are so far from the (possibly apocryphal) early cinema spectators who screamed when they saw a train coming straight towards them on the screen. Today, if something looks too real, too without flaws and obvious mechanisms, we don't assume that it is supernatural or even real, but rather that it is run-of-the-mill fakery, utterly lacking in mystery or mystique. The Illusionist would have done better to pick a style for its magic (and thus for its narrative as a whole) - glitzy contemporary trickery, or scratchily archaic mechanics - and to examine what that style's relationship is to a contemporary audience's process of belief.

The Illusionist (2006)
dir. Neil Burger

  • You can find The Illusionist at Amazon, Netflix, and most stores that rent or sell DVDs. But, really, why not get The Prestige instead?
  • Wikipedia has a page on the film, with a complete plot summary.
  • This would be, coincidentally, a very easy film to do a "connect the dots" or rather "connect the phallic symbols" type reading with: the heroine is always about to be dragged back to some sinister looming tower to be locked up, and a sword plays a crucial role in the central mystery, a role which has parallels in the amorous plotline. I'm just sayin'.