THE ILLUSIONIST (Neil Burger, 2006)

Most of us have a fondness for “What if . . .” stories, but it’s always quite a trick to pull such a story off. Headed for a dead end from the start, The Illusionist is a dispiriting entry in the genre. It’s a slow, studied, long-winded playing-about with history, specifically, late nineteenth-century Austrian history, more specifically, the debated death in 1889 of the Crown Prince, Archduke Rudolf, rechristened here Leopold. (The character by either name does not appear in Steven Millhauser’s story, upon which the film is based.) It is, of course, Rudolf’s death that reconfigured the occupation of the throne, leading eventually to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s becoming the presumptive heir to the throne. Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 helped trigger World War I. The Illusionist means to make us wonder about what might have caused Rudolf/Leopold’s death and what was the possible legacy of the event for the whole western world. Really, the film fails. Its faint substance poorly serves the momentous history involved. While some might find the film diverting (especially those who do not mind being tricked, as it turns out that nearly everything we are shown isn’t what it appears to be), The Illusionist doesn’t send the mind of the individual viewer on the kind of speculative collective journey capable of embracing the dimension of social and political tragedy the specter of which it raises by the fate of its Crown Prince Leopold. It’s a silly movie.

Rudolf/Leopold is not the film’s protagonist, although his relegation to a secondary figure by no means is any sort of dramatic problem. Indeed, seeing the one real and historically important character in a subordinate role, such as here, is capable of releasing especial delight. This doesn’t happen, unfortunately, in The Illusionist for a variety of reasons, among them, the confused and confusing narrative that we are tediously dragged through, and the insipid acting of Rufus Sewell in the role. The Illusionist is among the most listless period films that one can imagine.

Who is the main character then? The son of a cabinet-maker, a stage magician in Vienna, about thirty years old, who goes by the name of Eisenheim. (Millhauser’s story is titled “Eisenheim the Illusionist.”) The possibility exists that Eisenheim is more than an illusionist; could he be a sorcerer or wizard? What is real, what is illusionary? The film, written and directed by Neil Burger, doesn’t seriously investigate this theme but only toys with it, mostly to hoodwink the audience, that is to say, us.

Fifteen years earlier, the boy who would become “the illusionist” fell in love with an aristocratic girl, Sophie von Teschen, who at the same time fell in love with him. Sophie’s parents, of course, separated these two—literally. (This romantic melodrama is pure confection. The character of Sophie doesn’t even exist in Millhauser’s story.) When the boy reappears as Eisenheim, the pair reunite. Now Sophie, a duchess, is betrothed to the Crown Prince, a cruel tyrant who once, it is rumored, threw a girl to her death over the balcony in order to hide the fact that he had brutalized her face. (Leopold is also plotting to overthrow his father, presumably, Kaiser Franz Josef I.) In an extraordinarily convoluted and contrived fashion (we are in Agatha Christie territory here, I’m afraid), the film follows Eisenheim’s ingenious plot to reunite himself with his “lost love.” This entails the point-blank suicide, or what appears to be the point-blank suicide, of the Crown Prince. The plot in which this “suicide” appears retains the ambiguity of the real Rudolf’s death, which some believe to have been a murder.

Burger hasn’t even attempted to concoct a genuine “what if . . . .” The farfetched scenario he has come up with will strike only an insane person as a serious historical possibility.

There are a number of reasons why the romantic addition to Steven Millhauser’s story doesn’t work the least bit, either. Edward Norton, who is otherwise dryly accomplished and exceptionally good as Eisenheim, isn’t much for passionate romance. A far lesser actor such as Brad Pitt would have been better able to handle this aspect of the role. Moreover, the tangled narrative shortcircuits the possibility of vibrant, direct passion. Burger has retained from Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” the character of Uhl, the police chief dogging the illusionist in hopes of shutting down his increasingly popular show. At some point the principal action shifts away from the romantic couple (it almost has to, since Burger promulgates the ruse that Sophie has been murdered by the Crown Prince when she hasn’t been) to Uhl, who is as much fascinated by the illusionist’s “illusions” as desirous to end them. The film loses its focus on romance, and the new focus it achieves with Uhl is scant compensation, especially since Paul Giamatti is leaden in the part. (It should be noted, though, that Burger has so overcomplicated Uhl that there probably was no way of successfully playing him.) Finally, the film doesn’t believe in the love story of Eisenheim and the Duchess. The romance trivializes the history; but just as sadly, the history trivializes the romance. The final clinch carries no conviction.

The slapdash resolution, which includes the solution of Eisenheim’s complicated scheme, adds to the preposterous enterprise. Giamatti’s Uhl unravels the “mystery” in twenty or thirty seconds when, in fact, nothing in his character or level of expertise that we’ve seen convinces us that he could have unraveled it in twenty years!

For a film like this to work, it has to be fun. There has to be wit, not just gorgeous color cinematography (in this instance by Dick Pope, who leans on the greens and filters out the blues to give the piece a moldy one hundred-year-ago look). But the solemn piece that Burger has wrought, which stretches a 21-page story into what feels like an eternity, is absent all wit.

The “illusions” are nifty, however, and Burger’s balcony long shots retain the integrity of the stage performances. Make of this what you will: Eisenheim’s age more or less coincides with that of cinema’s great illusionist at around the same time, whose films began appearing, like magic, in the mid-1890s: Georges Méliès.*

* Burger’s film resembles a good many other films, among them Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician (The Face, 1958), Louis Malle’s Le voleur (Thief of Paris, 1967), and The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973). The scenes of illusion-making or vision-creation do indeed suggest Méliès, their special effects having been devised, even when computer-generated, to resemble the “magic” in these early silents.

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