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Film / The Illusionist (2006)

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"Nothing is what it seems."

A 2006 Period Drama loosely based on Steven Millhauser's story "Eisenheim The Illusionist", starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell.

The Illusionist revolves around a report delivered mostly in flashback by Uhl (Giamatti), a police inspector in late nineteenth century Vienna assigned to investigate Eisenheim (Norton), a magician who has caused uproar due to his apparent ability to summon and communicate with the souls of the dead. This by itself would be enough to get their attention, but the matter is further complicated by Eisenheim's personal motives; for many years he has been in love with a girl he met as a child, to whom he made a promise to rescue her from her unhappy life and disappear with her to start anew. Which would be fair enough, if it wasn't for the fact that the girl is now Sophia, Duchess of von Teschen (Biel) and the fiancee of the cruel and dominating Crown Prince of Austro-Hungary (Sewell). This leads Uhl to a case revolving around murder, treason and jealousy where nothing is as it seems and nothing can be trusted — not even the evidence of his own eyes...

No relation to the 2010 animated film.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Inspector Uhl cannot help but laugh to himself when he realizes just how thoroughly Eisenheim had fooled everyone, including himself.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original short story is mostly about how people respond to the illusions.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Rudolf, the real and historical Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, was renamed Leopold in this movie.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: Uhl is not a sympathetic character or Worthy Opponent in the original.
  • Adaptation Title Change: The movie's name was shortened from the original's "Eisenheim the Illusionist".
  • Adaptational Heroism: Eisenheim himself. He's the protagonist in Millhauser's story, but only his magic is of any importance.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: While the Crown Prince without doubt is a jerkass, the ending lets you wonder whether he really was so evil as he was made out to be, especially because it is revealed that his motive for preparing a coup was not mere selfishness and lust for power, but his sincere belief that his father was unable to lead the Empire into the future. Did he really deserve to be framed for a murder that not only did he not commit, never even happened in the first place? Though one does have to remember that the Crown Prince is at least depicted as heavily authoritarian and possessing of a sadistic streak, and that his sincere belief in his father's incompetence does not by itself mean that his rule would be any more pleasant to be subject to.
  • All There in the Manual: While Eisenheim's tricks may seem like a simple Hand Wave of reality for the sake of drama, all of them actually have very clear explanations — but only in the DVD commentary tracks.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Eisenheim, aka Eduard Abramowitz, has a Jewish surname, and is a stage magician in the early twentieth century. If so, it adds another reason why he and Sophie aren't allowed to be together.
  • Arc Words: A series of them are fired off in a montage at the end of the movie, giving context to everything that was said earlier which takes on a new meaning when the truth is exposed at the end. The most significant being when Eisenheim says in front of Uhl, "Everything you have seen is an illusion."
  • Artistic License – Geography: Sophie is the Duchess of Teschen, and the Crown Prince is planning to marry her so that he can improve his claim to the Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary. However, Teschen was actually a Czech state populated by Poles and ruled by an Austrian noble family in the Austrian half of the Empire... the only connection with Hungary was that it lay across the border from them. At least geographically; it's possible that such a move might have been shore up dynastic and political affiliations with people tied to that territory/title, but the movie doesn't explain it.
    • And then there's the contrary example - even taking into account all the class issues, it is difficult to understand why the Duchess of Teschen thinks of the farm near Prague as of something "exotic", since it's the neighboring province of the same country both then and now (and Prague was and is much larger than small Teschen). Even if we take the vantage point of Vienna as an imperial capital and not Teschen, Prague is still not that far away and was the second or third largest city of the same Habsburg Empire as Vienna, thus still hardly an "exotic" place.
  • Asshole Victim: The crown prince. Sure, he's an absolute jerk with a history of beating and maybe even killing women. But the protagonists end up driving him to suicide over a murder he did not actually commit.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: In the climax of the movie, Leopold committed suicide, when the only thing between him and the troopers that were going to take him prisoner was just a weak door.
  • Big Bad: Crown Prince Leopold intends to usurp his father by forcing Sophie to marry him, and tries to expose the magic tricks of the titular magician, Eisenheim, who wants to free Sophie from him.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The "villain" is an obnoxious, possibly murderous, misogynistic asshole planning a coup d'etat. The hero is noble, but very extreme in the methods that he uses to get what he wants, up to and including framing the villain for a murder he didn't commit (driving him to suicide) and getting the only really moral character in the film kicked out of his job as chief police inspector.
  • Cassandra Truth: "He's planted everything!" "You're drunk."
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The man seen with Eisenheim at the train station.
  • Chekhov's Gun: There are many: the locket, the orange tree, the sword, and many minor ones.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Eisenheim and his duchess grew up together and are implied to have made a Childhood Marriage Promise.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Implied with the locket.
  • Conspicuous Trenchcoat: Sophie is followed everywhere "for her protection." Eisenheim uses this to his advantage.
  • Control Freak: The Crown Prince, full stop. Between having Sophie followed around everywhere to planning to overthrow his father the emperor its clear the man believes he must be in control of everything. Also ties into his motive to find out the secret of Eisenheim's illusions. Unlike the chief inspector who has a genuine fondness and respect for the magic tricks, the crown prince simply wants to show everyone how much smarter he is by figuring them out.
  • Death Glare: The prince is fond of these. Most noticeable after the "Excaliber" trick. He doesn't have to say "You'll regret this" to make the sentiment painfully clear.
  • Driven to Suicide: The prince does this after he runs up against both his personal and political problems.
  • Dueling Movies: In contest with The Prestige (2006). Came out the same year, both period pieces featuring magicians doing impossible tricks, and going to extreme lengths for love and/or revenge.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Sophie is not really dead. Things were arranged to seem as if Leopold had killed her (even for himself, by making him drunk at the moment of the purported homicide), and he committed suicide before being jailed... for a crime that he did not commit.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Early in the film Eisenheim runs into a group of street urchins. Instead of simply giving them some money, which he's certainly capable of, he instead gives most of them one coin each with a slight-of-hand trick — except the last one, who he gives an empty handkerchief... Before raining coins down from his empty hands on the last boy and his fellows. This establishes him as a trickster, but a generous and gentle one.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: The inspector figures out what's really going on, complete with a montage of all the key moments from the film, just too late to do anything about it.
  • Faking the Dead: Sophie, complete with a very convincing temporary Faux Death.
  • Flashback-Montage Realization: After a chance encounter with Eisenheim in the streets, Uhl has a "Eureka!" Moment, and the audience is shown a montage of clips and lines of dialogue from the film explaining The Reveal that Eisenheim and Sophie faked Sophie's death in order to escape from Leopold and drive him to suicide.
  • Foreshadowing: Very subtle example: when Eisenheim reaches out his hand just before the incident where a theater-ghost is reportedly spotted in the street outside, his hand blurs slightly, much like the "ghosts" do. Although the sequence of shots makes it look like he's on stage summoning up the little ghost boys, it's probably an off-stage scene of him filming himself gesturing that way, in preparation for his later on-stage appearance as a "ghost".
  • Framing the Guilty Party: It's implied that the Crown Prince had killed and/or seriously injured women before, and we see him hit Sophie. The accusation that eventually drives him to suicide, though? It's false. Not that he knows.
  • Gambit Roulette: The big plan of Eisenheim was successful, and he could escape with Sophie, with nobody hunting them, as it would happen if they simply run away with no master plan. Still, many things could have gone wrong with it.
    • What if Uhl checked the stables immediately (as he was about to do), and not some days later?
    • What if the family doctor was a bit more competent and realized that something was wrong?
      • the "Family Doctor" was revealed to be Eisenheim's disguised confidant during the finale when Uhl flashes back and remembers seeing him talking to Eisenheim at the train station.
      • On that note, what if somebody noticed that this man was not the Von Teschens' family doctor?
    • What if the family decided to bury the corpse at a deep tomb, or worse, cremate it?
      • See above.
    • What if Leopold did not attend that specific night's show?
    • What if Uhl was not such a By-the-Book Cop and actually detained Eisenheim for some phony reason, as Leopold had ordered?
    • What if Uhl could get Eisenheim before he took the train, or get to the train as well before it left?
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Rudolf, the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, who is renamed Leopold in this telling. Even around the unclear circumstances about his apparent suicide, there aren't any clear proofs indicating he were plotting against his father, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. On a personal level: he was The Casanova and held period-appropriate misogynistic/pessimistic views, but he was never a domestic abuser (or at least rumored to be.)
    • In fact, the prince as presented in the movie more closely resembles not Rudolf, but another Austrian Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand (yes, that one). His wife's name was Sophie, and she also was of Bohemian descent (unlike Rudolf's Marie von Vetsera), though she only became a duchess as a result of her (morganatic) marriage to the heir apparent. He had authoritarian inclinations not unlike those depicted in the movie (Rudolf, by contrast, was more of a liberal), was very active politically (whereas Rudolf basically didn't have enough time to develop political career before his suicide) and strongly disagreed with Franz Josef's manner of rule (though still not to the degree of actually contemplating a coup against him). Konopiště castle shown in the film was actually Franz Ferdinand's last residence (those innumerable horn trophies on the walls one can easily see in the movie? those are the real results of Frankie's notorious large-scale hunts). And, of course, both he and his wife also died tragically as a result of shooting... It should be noted however that she was his one true love: Franz Ferdinand basically agreed to renounce the dynastic rights of his future children on their behalf just in order to be able to marry her.
  • How We Got Here: Most of the movie is actually Inspector Uhl's narration of how he ended up in the Prince's study, slightly late.
  • Inspector Javert: Inspector Uhl is a cross between this and an Obstructive Bureaucrat. In the end, he's revealed as one of the few truly moral characters in the film.
  • Magicians Are Wizards: While The Prestige justified its use of this trope, this film handwaves it. Though methods existed for all his tricks, you never learn about them without the DVD commentary.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Until The Reveal, it is deliberately ambiguous whether Eisenheim does tricks or really has powers. It turns out that he does tricks.
  • Master of Illusion: Eisenheim uses all sorts of ingenious devices and tricks to fool his audience.
  • Monochrome Past: The flashback to when Eisenheim and Sophie were children together isn't entirely monochrome, but it is color graded to give it a sepia-tone effect, like an old photograph, and also flickers like a silent film.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Uhl attempts to convince Eisenheim to trust him by relating that he is not the member of the social elite Eisenheim thinks he is, but in fact shares a similar, humble background.
    Uhl: Yes, indeed, they say that I'm very close to the Prince. But the simple truth of the matter is, Herr Eisenheim, I'm the son of a butcher. He's the heir to the Empire. How close could we be to such as him, Hmm? Do you see my point? Don't fool yourself that you can play in their game. I've served on the edge of it for many, many years and I can tell you with certainty there's no trick they haven't seen. It's not worth it.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Invoked and inverted in-story not by The Protagonist, but by the man investigating him, of all things; who tells the protagonist that "while others may assume that a discreet carriage ride (with the Duchess and future empress) was what it looked like (a sexual encounter), I am willing to find out what it actually was." (As it turns out, a conversation between childhood friends.) It may also be subverted as Uhl is clearly skeptical of Eisenheim's explanation and warns him others will be even moreso.
  • Pet the Dog: Eisenheim, after his first successful show, playfully and quietly giving a windfall of coins to a few urchins.
  • Prince Charmless: The prince is established early on as a domestic abuser, and he certainly has little patience for Uhl, who is clearly one of the most competent and intelligent of his staff.
  • Rebellious Princess: A duchess who wants desperately to run away with Edward despite the fact that he's the lowborn son of a cabinetmaker.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: At the end, the crown prince tries to bribe the inspector, inviting him to say what he wants. The inspector replies that he doesn't want anything the crown prince can offer.
  • Shadow Archetype: Eisenheim and the prince are this to each other. Both are well-intentioned extremists in love with Sophie who did what they had to do in order to get what they wanted. Eisenheim frames an innocent man for murder, while the prince is a drunk and a wife beater who is planning a coup because he genuinely thinks it's better for the country.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The lanterns Eisenheim tells his assistants to leave behind when they're packing up his workshop resemble fantascopes - a common device used to illuminate real people offstage.
    • When Sophie comes onstage, she only uses one hand to lift the hem of her skirt. In 19th Century custom, a lady used one hand to lift her hem and only prostitutes used two hands.
  • "Shut Up" Kiss: Eisenheim to Sophie.
  • Stage Magician: Eisenheim's job is this sort of performance.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: In-universe, this is the prince's general attitude. If someone can't accomplish what he tells them to — even if it's impossible — clearly they "can't be relied on."
  • Take That, Audience!: In-Universe, Eisenheim was forced to this. Threatened to be detained for fraud, and with criminal charges increased if the mob outside attacked the building, he rushed to the balcony, to talk to his fans. And he destroyed their Willing Suspension of Disbelief by clarifying that he had no special powers and he can not summon the spirits of the dead. That everything the people had seen at the theater was an illusion, a trick. There it is, now there's no "fraud", the police can not detain him for that.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: The son plans to overthrow his father because he thinks the "old man" can't properly lead the Empire into the future.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The story is a highly fictionalized version of the Mayerling incident, what were the series of events leading to the apparent murder–suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera, in 1889.
  • Whodunnit to Me?: Sophie's ghostly appearances at Eisenheim's shows seems to be trying to get the public to figure this one out.
  • Worthy Opponent: Eisenheim and Uhl. The feeling is mutual, as shown when Eisenheim leaves Uhl the notes of his Orange Tree trick, and Uhl's laughter at the end when he realizes how Eisenheim tricked everyone, including himself.
  • Would Hit a Girl: The prince often does if the rumors about him beating his previous girlfriends are true, and he does indeed give a hard slap to Sophie at one point. The fact that even he seems convinced he legitimately might've killed Sophie while drunk also adds credence to the rumors that he's killed a woman before.