Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Illusionist

"Eisenheim the Illusionist" [1990]
Written by Steven Millhauser

The Illusionist [2006]
Written and Directed by Neil Burger

Millhauser's "Eisenheim" is a magical realist fable in the tradition of Borges. It concerns the career of the titular conjurer in fin de siècle Vienna. Eisenheim appears from the eastern outskirts of the Hapsburg Empire and begins to make a name for himself in the capital city. His early performances tend to be variations on current tricks, but as he progresses in skill, the tricks become more fantastic. Soon Eisenheim beings summoning ethereal entities; the controversy which arises parallels the contemporary clash and combination of science and spiritualism (should we miss this notion, Millhauser namedrops Madame Blavatsky).

Rival magicians attempt to upstage Eisenheim, but all fail. The best challenger of the lot is soon revealed to be Eisenheim himself in disguise. Ultimately though, the police, led by Herr Uhl, begin to get nervous about the illusionist's fame and power(s) and decide to arrest him (the arrest representing the final victory of the rational over the irrational). When they attempt to take him away, they find that Eisenheim himself is mere illusion.

An interesting Christ parallel runs through the story, although I don't know if it is intentional or not. Eisenheim is the son of a Jewish carpenter. He performs miracles which amaze the public but frighten the aristocracy. Here the parallel ends; Eisenheim is not portrayed as a messianic figure. But he does appear to have magic powers.

The film serves as a variation and extension of the short story. Several of Eisenheim's tricks are performed as they are described in the book. Burger removes the competing magicians angle (that apparently is the plot of 2006's other magician film, The Prestige) and adds a love story with Jessica Biel. Surprisingly, the addition of a WB-starlet love interest doesn't derail the proceedings. In fact, Fräulein Biel holds her own against Edward Norton and Rufus Sewell, a pleasant surprise.

A more unpleasent surprise is that everything really was an illusion. Herr Uhl pieces together what happened in a Usual Suspects-style series of flashbacks, and Eisenheim and his Duchess love live happily ever after in Sound of Music country. It's a modernist cop-out; don't worry folks, there's no such thing as spirits. It would be easier to swallow if we weren't given such amazing CGI effects throughout Eisenheim's performances. As 21st century viewers, we have a general grasp of the amazing technical wizardry involved in making Paul Giamatti's hand wave through Edward Norton. So there's no conceivable way that such an effect could be performed in the 19th century, especially before a live audience.

I liked the movie well enough, but I thought the end was a bit of a cheat. But that's the nature of magic and professional wrestling. You know it's all rigged. It's a sort of punishment for belief I suppose, something to douse the embers of child-like wonder smoldering in our hearts. Maybe I'm reading way too much into all of this. I would just like a little magic to be real once in a while.

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