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Friday, September 01, 2006

History, Mystery, and Magic: The Illusionist

If history is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there, then historical fiction is . . . something else. And a movie based on historical fiction (or fictionalized history)? I don't think they exist. Spoilers for The Illusionist do exist, however, and you'll find them below. (They're pretty detailed, so you might want to skip this until after you've seen the movie, which I definitely recommend.)

When I wrote the entry about what I've been reading lately, I wasn't particularly thinking about The Illusionist, although I knew I wanted to see it. However, it certainly fits well into a group with The Prestige (so well that we got this trailer again, as well as one for the new All the King's Men and Black Dahlia to keep the history-fiction groove going), Carter Beats the Devil (and in weird synchronicity, we ate at the Lucky Strike in River East before the movie; the restaurant has a giant "Carter the Great" poster), and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (I got nothin' in the way of coincidences here).

I knew Steven Millhauser's name from when he won the Pullitzer. However, I haven't read anything of his, and I didn't actual remember (if I ever knew) that the movie was based on a short story of his. I'm anxious to read the original story now to see how much Millhauser wrote and how much was changed by Neil Burger for the screenplay.

I'm also going to disclose that my command of turn-of-the century Austro-Hungarian politics and order-of-succession issues is pretty nonexistent, so I've been doing a half-assed, undercaffeinated crash course in them this morning. I knew that Franz Ferdinand was not Franz Josef's son, and I had a very vague memory of a suicide or some other kind of lurid death in the family. I was, however, almost entirely ignorant that the circumstances surrounding the death of Crown Prince Rudolf (not Leopold, as the movie has it for some reason) and his mistress was officially A Thing with a catchy title (Ghosts of Mayerling, Murder at Mayerling, the possibilities are nearly infinite). Of course, even in my Oggish state, I can tell that anyone wanting to commit "the real story" to paper and/or film is required simply to choose among several different sensational scenarios. (Oddly enough, as we neared home, I was wondering aloud to the ZK which version of Elizabeth Short and the Black Dahlia story they had used for the film.)

In some ways, my minicourse relieved my mind on a few points. I was glad to know that Jessica Biel's character, Sophie, had not been created out of whole cloth, even though she's been elevated from mistress to politically key fiancee. Similarly, the fact that the details of Rudolf's death were obscured at the time was a relief. Wait, that doesn't sound right, whatever his crimes against facial hair might have been. I mean I'm glad that the "mystery" and a century's worth of speculation about it genuinely exist and have come out of that part of the world.

However, the story that got filmed for The Illusionist is problematic even if the True Crime and its embellishments don't stem entirely from Ugly American Syndrome. (THIS time, but you bitches are On Notice.) I'm still eager to read the short story to see how the problems sort out in terms of what's Millhauser's baggage and what did Burger bring to the text-based party.

Initially, it seems as if the story might be able to rise above its own trite romance conventions and actually say something meaningful about class and gender politics. This is facilitated by the use of another somewhat exhausted-looking narrative device: The story is told almost entirely in retrospect, with only the last 20 minutes or so representing the unfolding of events after the opening moments of the film.

At the outset, Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamati demonstrating that, yes, he can topple European empires and still keep his complex facial hair impeccably groomed) has failed to arrest Eisenheim, the Illusionist (Edward Norton and Oh I'll have LOTS to say about him shortly). Uhl is accounting for his failure to Leopold (Rufus Sewell, also remember that he's really Rudolf, and please do weigh in on his facial hair) and summarizing the information that he and his men have gathered on Eisenheim's past and his relationship with Sophie.

The framing device allows for some winking and nodding (none of it unctuous and it's never too much) about the more fantastical and melodramatic elements. Uhl has been gathering information from Eisenheim's devotees, who are almost exclusively scabby peasants who are not only prone to romanticizing things, they WANT TO BELIEVE. For me, that's problematic both in terms of how seriously I can take the issues about class that are being raised (especially when the peasant fervor is contrasted with the oligarchs' blase amusement at Eisenheim's performance) and in terms of the ethics of stage magic. That may sound strange, but it's something that's been rolling around in my head for some time. I have something half-written about it (largely personal as, of course I have nothing original or first-hand to say about it as a larger issue), deriving from a number of things. Anyway, I'll get back to the moral rectitude of our protagonists later.

As a simple narrative device, though, having Uhl delivering this pastiche of Eisenheim's history works quite beautifully. It's filmic sleight of hand (and a very positive example of narrative orientation and point of view, in contrast to the things that bugged me about JS&MN): The audience knows from the outset that none of these things may have happened in this way. Briefly, Eisenheim was the son of a cabinet maker. As a child, he supposedly met a magician on the road. (The ways in which the script and visuals play with the multiple-unreliable-sources issue here is brilliant.)

After this encounter, he dedicated himself to the study of prestidigitation and the construction of magical apparatus (the last point is more implied than shown; we only ever see him making one very small item that has "magical" properties). As an adolescent, he meets Sophie, who is fascinated by his art and whose factory-direct kind heartedness leads her to seek him out when her privileged companions mock and torment them. Their friendship-bleeding-into-first-love is not well tolerated by Sophie's handlers. The two continue to meet in secret, even after Edward (Eisenheim's real name) is threatened with arrest, and they plan to run away together. That pooch is screwed before it leaves the station, and Edward is unable to comply with Sophie's plea that he "make them disappear."

Uhl's narrative loses track of Edward at that point, presumably because he is traveling, gathering mystical secrets, and so on as all magicians must. When he reappears as Eisenheim, he is polished, charismatic, and successful. His engagements are in top-tier theaters. They are attended by the beautiful people and the aspiring middle classes, including Uhl himself, who we learn is an upwardly mobile butcher's son and amateur kard-and-koin man himself. Eisenheim comes to the attention of the crown prince, who attends a performance and volunteers Sophie (who is now on the verge of becoming his fiancee) for a trick involving a "discussion of the soul" and "the meaning of death." Edward recognizes Sophie almost immediately, and she him shortly thereafter.

They meet in secret and, somewhat ex post facto, we find that Leopold is actually Billy Zane in Titanic. And then some. Not only is Sophie about to enter a loveless marriage for political reasons, but she's hitching her wagon to the star of a womanizing, empire-overthrowing batterer. (It is worth noting, however, that my igorance of the history and politics of the time prevents me from understanding whether or not Leopold/Rudolf's pro-Hungarian/anti-German position should be factored into the Evil Equation.)

But while the 'ship is fermenting, there's also slashy subtext afoot. Leopold's interest in Eisenheim is piqued at the public performance, and he invites the illusionist to perform for a private party. Leopold is intent on exposing Eisenheim's tricks, and Eisenheim is intent on deftly tweaking the Crown Prince's nose (assuming he could find it under the facial hair) while still remaining firmly inside the bounds of propriety. On the one hand, this is highly intriguing to me: Eisenheim and Uhl are both liminial figures (the former more obviously as a magician, but the latter more interestingly because he's a member of an emerging class whose powers are, as yet, amorphous) and they move in unprecedented ways by virtue of that. On the other hand, the film never really makes it clear whether Edward/Eisenheim is driven by his great love or by genuine conviction. And even if he is moved primarily by a code of ethics, is objecting to Leopold as a person or as a would-be Leader?

In any case, the het 'ship will out. Sophie and Edward are reunited and formulate Plan B for Running Away. They are found out almost immediately. Eisenheim's act is shut down by order of the Prince. Sophie is summoned by Leopold, who has heard from Uhl about her liaisons with Eisenheim. She tells him of her determination to leave him. He does not take it well. The servants stand by, silent and terrified, yet curiously observant, as her horse gallops away bearing her slumped form. A search party is formed after her riderless, blood-stained horse arrives at her home, and it is Eisenheim who discovers her body floating in a river.

Uhl's investigation turns up a patsy who is eager to confess to the murder. Eisenheim observes the period of ritual dementia and self-destructive behavior by firing his manager, buying a Theater of The People, and hiring a band of wandering extras from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His new act is devoid of the charming patter, polished manners, and general sophisticated-fool-at-court feeling that characterized his previous work. He appears in shirtsleeves, looking haggard and destroyed as he takes his place on the lone chair (very Mackintosh and, therefore, probably out of period and place, but gorgeous nonetheless) at center stage. He makes pained gestures as he creates ghostly images of people who appear to answer questions from the audience.

In good, bad-man fashion, Leopold is not satisfied with having killed Sophie. He is intent on destroying Eisenheim as well. After the first performance at which the spirit summoned is Sophie (who, of course, allows the audience to surmise that she was not murdered by the patsy), Uhl reluctantly arrests Eisenheim for fraud. As the faithful gather in the streets below Uhl's office, Eisenheim steps out on to the balcony and disperses the crowd by admitting that his act was entirely illusion and in no way supernatural (but the Proles are stubborn, you see and we hear some "Rhubarb Rhubarb Corn or Peas and Rescue Him" from the crowd). This leaves Uhl (who, by his own admission is, yes, corrupt, but no, not completely) no choice but to release him. Dissatisfied with the job that Uhl has done thus far, the Crown Prince disguises himself as a commoner and attends a performance. Rufus Sewell achieves a simply gorgeous moment of acting when Leopold suffers his brief Crisis of Anonymity as he steps from his carriage on to the street.

Sophie, naturally, is summoned a second time and reveals that she was murdered by someone in the crowd. The crowd, just as naturally, connects the dots leading to the Crown Prince. Some go so far as to accost Uhl and demand that he investigate the Prince as "he cannot go on" if he is guilty. Leopold, rather than being thrown into another violent fit, shows some grudging respect for Eisenheim's skill at treading the line. Neither he nor his illusions have said anything treasonous; he has simply elicited the desired response from the audience. Respect or no, though, he naturally wants Eisenheim's most delicate bits on a platter.

Throughout the film Eisenheim and Uhl meet several times as individuals in an attempt to do some damage control regarding their relationship in public and official capacities. (There's so much promise in the text regarding the body politic/body human. Not a lot of it is capitalized upon in the film, but it's meaty stuff when it is. I wonder if the story serves the issues better.) Uhl begs Eisenheim to cease and desist with the self-destruction, pointing out the bloody obvious that he cannot bring down the entire monarchy. Eisenheim admits his own limitations in this regard, but underscores that Uhl himself has got historically contingent power coming out of his bottom. But again, romance rather undercuts the bigger picture.

Uhl asks what Eisenheim wants: "Nothing."

Uhl asks why Eisenheim would do this: "To be with her."

(Oh, it's turned on its head later when Uhl, ultimately, decides that he wants nothing. This frees him to Do the Right Thing and rotate off the dharmic wheel. Or something.)

In her third appearance, Sophie more overtly (but still indirectly) implicates the Prince in her murder and reveals that she was leaving him for Eisenheim. The already emotionally overwrought crowd erupts into frenzy and Uhl takes the stage to arrest Eisenheim. Who is an illusion.

The story catches up with itself at this point. The historical crotch has been reached and Uhl is left to choose a pant leg. He chooses the pant leg that damned near kills him and greatly complicates issues of succession for Austro-Hungary. Oops, sorry about that, Austro-Hungary. No hard feelings, 'kay?

The denoument is odd to say the least, and it certainly smacks of Hollywood (yet another reason I want to lay hands on the story sooner rather than later). Uhl having honored the Prince's suicide with a copycat, metaphorical gun to the head, is approached by one of Eisenheim's urchins. The urchin hands him a package containing the secret to one of Eisenheim's earlier tricks and, as it turns out, relieves him of Sophie's locket, which had been a crucial piece of evidence leading him to accuse the Prince of her murder.

He catches sight of Eisenheim in disguise and chases him through the streets of Vienna. The chase ends at the train station. Eisenheim makes good his escape and the pieces of evidence fall into place for Uhl: an overheard conversation, a plan that would have made Machiavelli blush, the anonymity of the serving classes, and so on. It's all filmed beautifully, and Paul Giamatti could sell me cinnamon-and-banana-coated meatloaf, but let's face it: It's goofy. Also, had I just been looking down the barrel of Rufus Sewell's gun, I would not be so delighted that those two crazy kids had pulled it off, but perhaps the heart of an upwardly mobile Austrian policeman is bigger than mine. But you know what? It's all been a scam, and a man is dead. And however many children he might have shanghaied to get on to one of the lifeboats, I'm not on board (as it were) with the scam. And these are not the Proletariat I'm looking for when the Revolution comes.

Story problems placed firmly to the side and stamped with "On Notice," I cannot recommend this movie highly enough on the strengths of the performances and visual beauty. This may strike those of you who leave the house occasionally as strange, but I've never, ever seen Edward Norton in a movie before. Why the HELL didn't you bitches tell me about him? Seriously, I have a lump in my throat this moment just thinking about this performance. He is absolutely heartbreaking and compelling. Paul Giamatti? I think we all know I need a Paul Giamatti Praise Macro. Uhl is a character unlike any other I've seen him play: He gets to be more confident, witty, and charming as Uhl than I've ever seen him before, but the fundamental screw-up love is still beneath.

Rufus Sewell is just creepy as hell. Those eyes? They ain't right. Leopold is the most cardboard of the characters her, but Sewell does well finding depth and emotional dynamics without much to work with. Jessica Biel is also new to me. She didn't bowl me over with her performance. This is quite a manly story and film, so she isn't given much that's meaty to work with. However, she has a wonderful look for the period and she certainly wasn't an active negative.

As for Burger's direction . . . I think his status as a relative n00b shows up from time to time (e.g., he twice uses a very old-timey aperture wipe to signal what's retrospective and what's now forward temporal movement), but not often. Like I said, I've never seen anything with Edward Norton before, but whether Burger drew that performance out of him or knew enough to get out of the way, I applaud him. (That brings to mind one of the greatest personal moments between Uhl and Eisenheim. Uhl tells him that he doesn't know if he has supernatural power or is simply that good at illusions, but either way, it hardly matters. He is unique and powerful.) I also don't know if Burger is responsible for the sheer beauty of nearly every single frame or if that honor goes to cinematographer David Pope. I do know that I want my very own print so that I can lick each individual, beautiful frame. Seriously, the lighting makes me want to weep. Oh, and I kind of want the Phillip Glass score, which is kind of like me saying "I want to eat a wheel-barrow full of unwashed beets."

It's so gorgeous as visual art, I deeply regret the issues with the narrative.

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Anonymous Kate said...

Very accurate review. I read your blog pretty regularly, but had skipped this entry until I could see the movie. Finally saw it this weekend--couldn't agree with you more on the acting and the visuals; a gorgeous production. The ending was kind of capital L lame, and you could see it coming from waaay down the track, but whatever. Still a great movie.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Matilda said...

The ending was kind of capital L lame, and you could see it coming from waaay down the track, but whatever. Still a great movie.

Indeed. The more I think about the movie, the more I agree about the ending. Paradoxically, though, the more I also think The Illusionist one of the best movies I've seen in a long while. Dumb ending aside, it just grabs you as a movie should while you're watching it, and it repays thinking about it afterward.

6:01 PM  

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