Film Reviews (2006)  
  The Illusionist  
Slither

Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” is a handsome character study set in turn-of-the-century Vienna which, if it were a book, would be a thick, leather-bound tome, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, and several of its pages would have light wine stains around the edges. The world Burger evokes is mannered but not to the point of prim BBC-ishness. He uses an array of subtle effects in homage to the days of silent cinema, with sepia tints, soft focus around the edges, and occasionally a flicker of back-lighting tossed in for good measure. An impeccably tasteful selection of sets, costumes, and scenery conjure up posh drawing rooms, the clop of horse’s hoofs on ancient cobblestone, cramped gaslit theaters, and the cold splendor of imperial wealth. The actors, formidably talented and perfectly at ease in this invented world of Eastern Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century, lend a quiet, lucid intelligence to the movie as it steadily blends reality and illusion into a swirl of smoke.

A rather strategic swirl of smoke, as it turns out: the rich mise en scene of “The Illusionist” can’t quite conceal a bald, hackneyed, uninvolving tale of star-crossed love and royal intrigue. Even the magic harms more than it helps. Burger’s liberal expansion of Steven Millhauser’s short story only seems more commonplace next to the remarkable tricks performed by the mysterious Eisenheim. A poor Austrian lad, keenly played by Edward Norton with his usual unassuming ferocity, Eisenheim at first seems adept at taking all the wrong steps to secure a healthy career for himself. He eschews schoolwork for balancing eggs on his hands, falls in love with forbidden countesses, and upon entering show business changes his name to make it more Semitic. The magic eventually pays off, though, and Eisenheim becomes a big success. So successful, in fact, he sounds as if literature was a meager part of his education. In comparison to his prestidigitations—a miraculous orange tree, a haunted mirror, shimmering visitations from dead people—his stage orations sound skimpy and shopworn. His thoughts on life, death, and other eternal questions would sound embarrassing as Adult Education audio tapes let alone the inner musings of a man who has communed with the dead and discovered the esoteric secrets of Jessica Biel’s lips.

As with con-man tales, movies about magicians always succumb to the same fatal flaw: the whole point of cons and tricks is to see them performed live, in real time. Or, rather, not to see them—to miss the sleight of hand. An orange tree sprouting in a metal bucket is awfully neat, but in the medium of cinema, well...last week I watched a Kraken smash a ship into pieces and devour the crew. Movies cheat, in other words. It’s their cardinal virtue. Reality is already wedged between inverted commas in any film, let alone one about illusion. Eisenheim’s illusions are cute, but hardly eyebrow raising. And the ending to “The Illusionist” will be easy to guess for most audience members, and especially so for those familiar with “The Usual Suspects” and other films whose core narrative tissue comes from the lips of liars. Eisenheim is one step ahead of everyone else—except most of the audience. Never advisable. But even this error isn’t such a bad thing. The protean Paul Giamatti, as the molelike Chief Inspector Uhl, the cop assigned to his case, carries his part of the film well enough that even though we more or less know what the big revelation is going to be, there’s still amusement in the laying bare of Eisenheim’s trick. Giamatti more than carries it, actually; no account of “The Illusionist” is possible without examining Inspector Uhl’s role in telling Eisenheim’s tale.

A quick look at how the story in the movie is narrated. The opening scene introduces us to Eisenheim, who summons a ghost in front of an audience. He is arrested for disturbing the peace (or perhaps not having a pointy mustache, it’s hard to tell). Then there is half of a framing scene whose back half comes later on. Uhl gives a report to Prince Leopold about Eisenheim, explaining his story from his birth until his arrest in the preceding scene. Uhl appears to be reporting to Leopold, as if he were the Prince’s henchman, but later we find that Uhl is actually confronting Prince Leopold with the crimes of murdering his would-be wife, Sophie, and plotting against the Emperor. It is not firmly established that Sophie is dead, or that Leopold has killed her, but he certainly has designs on the throne. ¬†Rather than face punishment for his treason, Leopold kills himself. Finally, when the royal dust has settled, an unemployed Uhl has an encounter of sorts with Eisenheim, who had earlier escaped capture by disappearing in an astonishing illusion. Uhl reflects on the showman’s disappearing act, and in a lightning flash of understanding Uhl realizes that the entire story of Sophie’s death has been fabricated so that Eisenheim and Sophie could escape Vienna, with revenge on the cruel Leopold as a side benefit. In short, there are only three scenes in the movie which actually take place in real time—Eisenheim’s arrest, Uhl speaking to Leopold, and Uhl’s indirect contact with Eisenheim at a train station. All else is flashback.

This extended flashback, which occupies much of the film’s running time, makes “The Illusionist” Uhl’s story as much as Eisenheim’s. Much of what the audience knows of Eisenheim, Sophie and Leopold comes from the local gossip, rumor, and legend which Uhl has absorbed over the years. Uhl recounts his own interaction with Eisenheim, but this is colored by all the secondhand details he has already collected about Eisenheim’s life. For instance, Burger shows us Eisenheim and Sophie having a secret rendez-vous in a carriage, but strictly speaking this scene is entirely conjecture. Uhl knows from a spy only that they were alone in a carriage. The flashback Burger shows us is really Uhl’s version; the lines they speak reflect the popular rumor about their relationship. All the scenes have this mixture of fact and conjecture. The last montage, in which Uhl envisions all the ingenious ways Eisenheim has tricked everyone from the Crown Prince to the lowliest man in the street, is merely a faster, more emotionally charged look at the mental process we have been watching for the entire film. Parsing them to determine what Uhl actually knows, and what he is speculating about, is the touch most faithful to the art of magic: the film displays dozens of details which Uhl—and the audience—must organize into a cohesive narrative. For illusionists are storytellers in the classic sense. Every magician from Houdini to Penn & Teller must weave a simple dramatic narrative into his tricks in order to make them work. It must be noted as such: almost everything Burger shows us is a shadowplay in Uhl’s mind, a tale of love and power partly based on rumor, partly orchestrated by a con man. Reality in “The Illusionist” more or less blows away in dandelion fluff because Uhl, as we discover in the end, is a most unreliable narrator. He believed the Prince to be a murderer, but the Prince was not.

That’s fingering the wrong man in a big way. Leopold, the film’s central dramatic device (the glowering prince who, like the author, drives the hero forward by quasi-omnipotent fiat), appears in a radically different light after Eisenheim’s illusion is revealed. While there is no question he is a surly, arrogant, and embittered aristocrat, and admits to having designs on the throne, it is worryingly unclear that Leopold is as bad as Uhl thinks he is. The story has been carefully arranged by Eisenheim, loading layer after layer of manipulative details on Uhl’s mule-like mind, until all the circumstantial evidence adds up to an easily digestible story: the peasant loves the princess, but the corrupt prince keeps her for himself while plotting to defraud the populace. But in the case of the love affair everything we know of Sophie and Eisenheim is based more on local legends than concrete facts. The mythical nature of Uhl’s account is made clear from the story of his youth, in which Eisenheim is said to have met an old man by a tree. First the old man vanishes followed by the tree as Uhl explains the story to Leopold. In other words, the conditions were perfect for Uhl to be coerced into carrying out Eisenheim’s plan. The back story was in place in Uhl’s mind, the magician had merely to arrange the details of an escape plot and let Uhl fill in the rest.

The murder plot works the same way. Uhl has no idea what actually happened, and Burger does not show us either. Uhl finally speculates that Sophie has drugged Leopold, felling the prince with a sleeping potion and then staging the crime, but for much of the film Uhl believes Leopold is capable of murder largely because a rumor is afloat that he had previously murdered a lover. Here, too, Burger lets us watch Uhl’s mind at work. Uhl sees that Leopold has guns and shoots them rather murderously; he is a busy hunter, the trophy heads of elk and other game lining the hall of the palace; and above all he is plotting against the Emperor. Motives, so vital to any cop’s mind, are supplied by loose details which Uhl pieces together. The prince’s guilt is mainly established through suggestion, yet watchers of even the lamest TV procedurals will know that all of this is circumstantial evidence. The character who possesses these traits is almost never the killer. Burger hints at Uhl’s mistaken line of thinking when Leopold is confronted by the “ghost” of Sophie, who accuses him of the crime, and he does not react like a guilty Claudius. He insists Eisenheim has tricked them, and he is right. Killing himself is a way of escaping the wrath of his father, the Emperor. Even in his last breaths he does not admit to killing Sophie.

Less important than the mere fact that Uhl is wrong about Leopold is his reaction—and ours—upon finding the “solution” to Eisenheim’s final illusion. In his hearty, bushy smile Uhl shows us that he is not just a dupe, but Eisenheim’s <i>ideal</i> dupe. Eisenheim quickly figures out how to use Uhl early on when he entertains the stolid detective by guessing in which hand Uhl has hidden a small red ball. He succeeds, and an astonished Uhl asks how it’s done. “It’s more primitive than you think” is the magician’s answer. As part of the trick, Eisenheim, whose back is turned, had asked Uhl to hold the fist concealing the red ball up to his forehead. The blood had left Uhl’s raised hand, making Eisenheim’s feat of deduction an easy one: spot the pale hand. Uhl is gratififed to have learned the trick, while sheepish at not guessing its secret. Upon finding himself the fool in a much larger illusion, in which the prince of Austria is falsely accused of murder, his pleasant reaction—so different than Agent Kujan’s bug-eyed horror at realizing he had Keyser Soze and set him free, for instance—knocks “The Illusionist” off its axis. Uhl may not have been just a narrator of Eisenheim’s amazing tale. “The Illusionist” traces the topography of Uhl’s mind and nothing more.

Now the indirect portraiture of “The Illusionist” comes into focus. In Giamatti’s characterization Uhl is like one of the lower-level constables in Dostoevsky. Dense, belly-thick, brooding, swinish in his eating habits, lugubrious and lemur-eyed, Uhl nevertheless seems just smart enough to solve crimes and serve his masters. He embodies the mediocrity of the nineteenth century bourgeois civil servant. He’s observant and alert, but in solving crimes he is more of a bulldog type (a few of Giamatti’s grunts are as good as Shakespearean soliloquies). He has risen to a position of power, and may go higher, yet he is always the butcher’s son and knows it. He admits to being “not completely corrupt”, and though he is speaking sarcastically he does come across as a man of divided integrity. The pleasure of watching Giamatti’s great performance distracts us from seeing what is meant to be a stupid, grunting, bourgeois detective more in line with Flaubert’s immortal Homais than Sherlock Holmes. As we move through the story, Uhl seems to have clear knowledge of everything that’s going on in his little world except Eisenheim, who appears as an unsolvable enigma to him. But by the end, we realize that Leopold was equally opaque to him, too, as are the people, the cityfolk who actually believe Eisenheim summons the souls of dead people. The film uses Eisenheim’s illusions as a way of probing Uhl’s intelligence to expose its limits.

These limits are not characterized by simple ignorance. His susceptibility to illusion is a product of his familiarity with the art of illusion. He confesses to being an amateur magician, so we know he has a core affinity with Eisenheim. (He reveals his essential sympathy with Eisenheim when he remarks that they’re from proletarian backgrounds.)¬† He is fully versed on the tricks of the trade, even though in many cases he simply knows that he doesn’t know something—that is, he comprehends a trick at work even if he doesn’t know how it’s done. In this way he is like Leopold, who also knows that there are tricks afoot, even if he can’t unravel their mysteries. But whereas Leopold is firmly and immovably skeptical in the face of obvious tricks, Uhl cannot keep himself from mooning in wonder at the strange feats of magic Eisenheim displays on his stage even when he knows he is watching illusions. He knows the orange tree is a device but he remains enthralled by it. In this way he also shares something in common with the nameless, faceless Austrians who come to believe Eisenheim is a true wizard. But he is neither. Always there is a dialectic between these extremes of belief—Leopold’s rational skepticism and the people’s vulgar spiritualism—and this is crucial to grasping Uhl’s signficance as a portrait of a certain type of man.

The character’s key line is when he tells Eisenheim that he may or may not be tricking the audience, but “either way” he has a gift. That “either way” comes to be a damning indictment of both Uhl and the film itself, and not only that, but in using the narrative devices as he does Burger has expanded this criticism to include the audience that watches “The Illusionist”. I doubt Burger is aware of what he has done—which is why this film gets an “either way” 5 rating—but his film serves up an object lesson, in the shape of mulish Uhl, in the limits of half-knowledge, of tepid belief, the “either way” of the modern man’s weak soul. Burger arranges for us to read the film as we would a magic trick, just as Eisenheim’s arrangements lead Uhl by the nose. Both we and Uhl are exploitable subjects not because we are gullible but for the opposite reason—because we are fluent with illusion and its semiotics. We know that filmmaking, like magic, is a <i>craft</i>, and in our understanding we smugly believe ourselves sophisticates inured to the charms of untruth. We are made to ape Uhl’s cognitive confusion. Like Uhl, we are so well-versed in illusion that we smugly allow ourselves to be both skeptics and believers, and we call this a virtue. We are completely at home in a purgatory of unbelief, ready to believe all and to believe nothing, we sophisticates who imagine ourselves immune to illusion even as we are infected by it.

In light of this, the political backdrop of “The Illusionist” is perhaps not such an accident. The poles between which Uhl moves are ours, too. If Uhl were as cunning and Machiavellian as Leopold, he might have seen a great change in Austria; it is never clear in the film that Leopold is not actually the reformer he says he is, and he does talk fervently about helping Austria. On the other hand, if Uhl were as simple and credulous as the cityfolk, he might have let Eisenheim cause the great spiritual flowering announced by a preacher after Eisenheim has “proven” the existence of the next world. Whether or not these prospects are good in themselves, they are impossible for all half-believers and half-knowers. The blurring of reality and illusion is clearly the filmmaker’s attempt to be enchantingly provocative, but it dramatizes the fatal flaw of bourgeois culture. Uhl would be better off knowing the world without sentimentality, as Leopold does, or believing everything with blind rapture, as the people do. Uhl does neither. He is doomed for the dusty middle course. Yet this has a consequence, for though he is not an agent of change, nevertheless he can thwart change (in this case, Leopold’s political reforms and a rebirth of spirituality). Only dimly aware of his real function in society, Uhl and those like him protect the status quo. Smiles abound in a happy ending, but “The Illusionist” doesn’t celebrate illusion, love, or spirituality. In the story it tells and in the way it is made, the movie indirectly reaffirms one larger story, the eternal story, indeed the only story: power. The Emperor keeps his crown.