There’s an early scene in this film when Eddie Marsan, as Josef Fischer, introduces a magic show. He sets a tone that demands our attention. We know we’re in for something spectacular, maybe unbelievable, and a lot of fun. What follows is a cast, performance, and story that astonishes and delights.
The Illusionist is classic storytelling. It’s charming like a book of old-world fairy tales. But what really makes this a lovable piece of media for me is the way it echoes the romantic beginnings of cinema, the early history of film itself. While watching this movie I couldn’t help but be reminded of Eric Barnouw’s book, The Magician and the Cinema and the close connection between movies and magic shows.
Of course, this is a story about a magician. Its based on a short story, set in Vienna around the turn of the century, so we’re off to a good start for classic, romantic storytelling. It’s interesting to contrast this flavor of Romanticism with that found in The Prestige which was released at about the same time. Both films are about magicians. Both are set in the same time period. Both are fantastic and have their own flavor of charm, but one is light and one is dark. Although The Illusionist has a sense of mystery and even a kind of dark magic, The Prestige is about darkness. Where The Illusionist is a classic, tidy love story, The Prestige is a case study in vengeance and despair. That sounds harsh but the fact is that both films are amazing and entertaining, just what you’d expect from 2 talented magicians with different personalities.
There’s a warm, flickering texture to this film. It’s aware of itself and knows from whence it came. It knows its own beauty. A music score by Phillip Glass adds another layer of magic. As pure entertainment, it might be about as perfect as any film. It’s easy to enjoy, like Mozart. With that easiness there comes a universe that is romanticized, not complex and realistic. It might not provoke or challenge viewers, but it will please them and maybe even inspire. And let’s be honest, sometimes we just love a fun film. Entertainment might be the best thing that movies have to offer us, just like a good magic show. I know they can offer us a lot more. But the real reason we watch most of what we do is for entertainment. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that as long as we’re aware of the other possibilities. Does art always have to confront us and slap us in the face? To everything there is a season. And I would also point out that maybe what we are confronted with in this film is, in fact, plenty:
Josef Fischer: Life and death. Space and time. Fate and chance. These are the forces of the universe. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a man who has unlocked these mysteries. From the furthest corners of the world where the dark arts still hold sway he returns to us to demonstrate how nature’s laws may be bent. I give you Eisenheim.
Eisenheim: From the moment we enter this life we are in the flow of it. We measure it and we mock it, but we cannot defy it. We cannot even speed it up or slow it down. Or can we? Have we not each experienced the sensation that a beautiful moment seemed to pass to quickly, and wished that we could make it linger? Or felt time slow on a dull day, and wished that we could speed things up a bit?
And one more quote to wet your appetite for this beautiful film:
Chief Inspector Uhl: Promise me you won’t do it again.
Eisenheim: I promise you you’ll enjoy this next show.