PUBLISHED 1 AUG 2016
AN abundance of top hats strewn across a forest floor serves as the opening sequence of THE PRESTIGE, followed by the disembodied voice of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). There is nobody onscreen. The implication is that Borden is speaking to the film audience when he asks: “Are you watching closely?” In an equally vague and mysterious opening, THE ILLUSIONIST finds its central character Eisenheim (Edward Norton) slouched on a chair on a stage facing a crowded auditorium in Vienna. His eyes glisten as he stares out at the silent onlookers, who are watching him with a sense of awe and anticipation. In a matter of seconds, both THE PRESTIGE and THE ILLUSIONIST create a sense of confusion and uncertainty. The two films are shrouded in mystery as they begin with sequences that, at first glance, appear without context until the rest of the film unfolds. In true magician form, they never reveal their secrets.
THE PRESTIGE aims to surprise and fool the viewer throughout its runtime as it tells the story of a friendship-turned-rivalry between two magicians that ultimately takes a sinister turn. While the deadly game of one-upmanship between Borden and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is the main basis of the film, the way in which their stories unfold is the cleverest trick the film pulls. As each magician attempts to figure out how the other performed a particular feat, so too does the audience. The film invites the viewer to participate with the protagonists as they attempt to decipher each other’s tricks. Nolan creates an interactive experience for us to choose our favourite magician and join them on their respective journey.
While THE ILLUSIONIST also attempts to deceive the viewer with its use of apparent supernatural elements that directly contradict the title of the film, the complex hoodwink is often seen from the perspective of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who represents the questioning audience throughout the film. Like us, he follows Eisenheim’s every step in an attempt to figure out exactly how the enigmatic conjurer performs his incredible feats. THE ILLUSIONIST also invites the viewer into the film, thus transcending the notion of spectatorship in a similar way to THE PRESTIGE, encouraging the audience to interact with the film in an effort to unravel the mysteries and surprises that Uhl uncovers.
Both films capture the essence of cinema itself: the close relationship between the audience and the film they are watching. Right up until the final act of each film, we are left questioning each new plot development. In THE PRESTIGE the modulated voiceover of Cutter (Michael Caine) tells us: “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking”. The allure of being surprised by the outcome is inescapable. Mystery, intrigue and the timeless device of a plot twist are the pretty assistants of both films. As they strive to entertain, they both metaphorically represent the fantastical illusion that cinema creates. Eisenheim encapsulates this as he addresses the crowd: “Everything you’ve seen in my theatre is an illusion, it’s a trick. It’s not real… My intention has only been to entertain”.