The Illusionist (2006)

illusionistcover01A Steven Millhauser twin spin!

The movie uses a flashback sequence to start in the same scene as the short story.  As a boy, Eisensheim encountered a traveling magician who performed miraculous tricks.  In the short story, he starts with coins from the boy’s ear; in the film, it is a frog, which is an improvement.

After a bit more conjuring and levitation, the wizard disappears, and by some accounts also the tree he was lounging under.  And maybe he also made off with the boy’s personality, because young Aaron Taylor-Johnson grows up to be the charisma-free star of Godzilla.

Paul Giamatti plays the role he always plays, Paul Giamatti.  In this case his character is Inspector Walther Uhl, who appears in both versions.  It is confusing to call Paul Giamatti by that other name when he is clearly Paul Giamatti, so lets just call him Inspector Giamatti.

The film and short story share the same early illusions.  As Eisenheim takes the stage, he removes  his black gloves, throws them in the air and they become ravens.  Both versions contain the Orange Tree illusion where Eisenheim plants a seed, grows a small tree and produces oranges in a few seconds.  The 2nd part of the trick has trained butterflies flying in with a handkerchief.  It is a callback to a handkerchief a volunteer gave him, but it just seems strangely separate from the Orange Tree trick part of the illusion.

illusionisttree01The film mostly stays with the source material as a large mirror is wheeled on stage, and a volunteer is taken from the audience.  Eisenheim directs the woman through a series of movements.  Naturally, the mirror image reflects those movements; until it doesn’t.  In both versions, but in slightly different ways, the volunteer’s reflection is stabbed as the actual volunteer watches motionless.  This miracle is disconcerting to the entire audience — the 5% at the necessary angle to view the illusion, and the 95% who fear they grossly overpaid for their seats.

Around this time, the film makes its biggest departure away from the short story.  True, the story as written might not have supported a feature-length film.  The filmmakers could have gone in at least two directions — playing up the fantastic elements of the story, or shoe-horning in a love triangle among Eisenheim, the Crown Prince of Austria, and the volunteer who was the Prince’s fiancee Sophie.  While still a great movie, I wish they had gone for option #1.

In the short story, the illusions get darker.  In Book of Demons, the titular book bursts into flames releasing “hideous dwarfs in hairy jerkins who ran howling across the stage.”  In Pied Piper, he causes a group of children to vanish.  When they return, some claimed to have been in a heavenly place, but others claimed to have “been in hell and seen the devil who was green and breathed fire.”  If there had been more of this, but still grounded by an abbreviated romance — GOLD!

The  rest of the film mostly plays out the love triangle which does not exist in the short story.   There is a murder, political intrigue, framing, suicide, more magic.  And mostly a happy ending.  Inspector Giamatti even turns out to be an OK guy.

illusionistjessicaThis is not the usual  blueprint for Steven Millhauser’s stories.  He frequently begins with a premise of something very big, or something very small, or something physically impossible and beats that premise to death.  But I mean that in the best possible way; examining the phenomena from many different angles, creatively tackling the implications.  It might be a town that maintains an exact duplicate of itself, women’s dresses that are as big as houses, paintings that seem to move, or an illusionist with who performs impossible feats.

The premise is the thing for Millhauser.  You don’t go in looking in for a love triangle with the Crown Prince of Austria.  I hope to cover more of his work later.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • On Amazon, this is categorized as Movies & TV > Blu-Ray > Romance.  Such a lost opportunity.
  • Sophie’s name is mentioned exactly once in the short story.
  • Although in both versions, Eisenheim is clearly performing impossible feats, the short story makes more of a case for the supernatural.  The Orange Tree illusion, however, actually has an historical basis, even if it was tarted-up with the trained butterflies.
  • I read this in the collection We Others: New and Selected Stories.  I am happy to support the arts, but putting out a collection of 21 short stories where 14 have been previously collected is just effectively forcing me to pay 3 times as much for the new material.  Well, not forcing exactly, as I actually set foot in a public library for the first time in years.  Sorry, Steve-o.
  • And don’t get me started on the trade paperback scam.
  • I don’t generally give actors much credit for their craft, but you can pretty much depend on Edward Norton to be great in anything he does.
  • Handkerchief is a strange word; it is literally a hand kerchief.  But a kerchief is specifically defined as being a woman’s scarf.  It is one of those strangely literal words like fireplace that say just what they are with an almost caveman simplicity.  Ummm . . . . fire . . . place!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.