Motion pictures are an illusion. They aren’t really manufactured from moving images at all, just some stills projected at 24 frames per second. The motion is really a trick created with the aid of shutters, lenses, a little sprocket device called the Maltese cross — and the human brain, via a phenomenon called persistence of vision.
Jean-Luc Go dard famously claimed that cinema is the truth 24 times per second; Brian De Palma countered that it’s really 24 lies per second
Like “F for Fake,” the delightful meditation on art and deception by Orson Welles, “The Illusionist” places ab muscles film you’re watching at the middle of the illusion. There’s an irony inherent in building a movie about magic, considering that the photographic medium is discontinuous and subject to post-production manipulations beyond those that can be made before a live audience. But inaddition it focuses your attention elsewhere, on the illusory properties of movies and storytelling, and simply how much we like to be dazzled by illusions in art, politics, religion, and other realms.
This coolly entertaining turn-of-the-century fable, told mostly in flashback by Vienna’s Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), concerns the political and philosophical duel between Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) and Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Poised between them may be the enchanting Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), furtive childhood soul mate of Eisenheim and possible future princess of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Leopold sees himself as a man of reason, sure that Eisenheim (rhymes with “Eisenstein”) is really a fraud. However the enigmatic Eisenheim may be a level better politician than the volatile Machiavellian prince: He lets his illusions speak for themselves, making no overt supernatural assertions but letting his audience interpret for themselves — a tactic that only enhances his mystical renown, and his sway on the enraptured Viennese populace.
Uhl, a narrator whose perspective is bound by what he thinks he has pieced together about Eisenheim and his shrouded past, is, like Sophie, swept up in the strain involving the magician and the monarch. He’s no omniscient story teller — like any detective, he just fills in virtually any gaps in case along with his instincts and imagination.
The movie creates a fascinating parable about art, religion and politics, and the misty boundaries between them. Leopold sees Eisenheim’s popularity as a political threat to his plans to become king, and Eisenheim repeatedly challenges the prince’s authority in his act, through indirection. Religious leaders seize upon Eisenheim’s apparent conjuring of spirits as both a blow against empirical science and absolute proof of the immortality of the soul — as though the soul could ever be validated through corporeal measures, or magic tricks.