The Illusionist fits the framework of the usual “enlightenment” film insofar as it features the theme of love, or meeting between inner masculine and feminine elements of the psyche. It has some lovely twists, though, and most prominent is the overall seesaw ride the viewer is taken on throughout concerning reality and illusion. This thematic edge has got to be a common one for many on their own journey beyond the confines of mundane reality; it has certainly been for myself. But then again, I’m a typical Pisces!

The line between reality and illusion in the characters is drawn between those who are lacking in imagination and concerned only with mundane reality (that unfortunate position being held mainly by Prince Leopold) and the lovers and seekers; Eisenheim and his lover, Sophie, a popular name for female figures in tales of enlightenment since it harks to Sophia, goddess of wisdom. The fun element is the role played by Paul Giamatti, that of Chief Inspector Uhl, which means “owl” in German[1] , which could have indicated his ultimate role in the film as the “enlightenee”, had I been aware of it when I first saw the film. The fact that he narrates the history of Eisenheim the Illusionist at the film’s beginning is another indicator of his truly preeminent role; its fulfillment cannot be completely known until the end, though. Truthfully, I am one of those who, like Sophie protesting that the Prince shut up and let Eisenheim work his magic rather than trying to expose “the truth”, sits back and absorbs a film first time, rather than analyzing. I am transported by soaking up the magic.

It is Uhl’s fairy tale story of Eisenheim’s youth, complete with misty-edged photographic frames and colorization that take us to another reality, that alerts us immediately to the presence of an underlying story in the film. Like many fairy tales, his narrative takes place in the soul’s terrain, where magic can indeed occur, a place beyond the rules of physical consensus reality, a place of miracles, a place where men and trees disappear as precipitously as they appeared. The soul is the meeting place between fate and destiny, two important concepts for young adolescents like young Eisenheim to understand, though my culture does little to help with this riddle. Fate in my definition consists of planned events that shape one’s life, propelling it towards the destiny which will be the unfolding of the deepest gifts of a lifetime. Young Eisenheim’s meeting with the magician inspired him to find that place in his life that defied physical reality, to journey beyond cultural expectations, evident in his love with Sophie. The magician presents the boy Eisenheim with three gifts of the soul; a bird (spirit, freedom), a rose

[1] another allusion to Sophia, the owl being a totem of hers and of wise magicians into antiquity, used in the Harry Potter stories, for instance.

(love), and a flute, instrument of the soul because it sounds when the Invisible (air) moves through it.

The fact of Sophie’s being a duchess, engaged to a prince, is not just representative of Eisenheim’s iconoclastic character, it is also part of the mythic, archetypal (see definitions) content, insofar as our inner lover is always prince or princess; mother and father are always king and queen (or emperor and empress). Early on, we are acquainted with the necklace Eisenheim has designed and executed for her, another symbolic artifact, with the butterfly inlaid upon its face. Butterflies are a common symbol for personal transformation, or “enlightenment”, because of their metamorphosis and mature beauty. The caterpillar is not only less attractive, it has a limited mobility and vision. In addition, the caterpillar hardly resembles the butterfly. Likewise, a human can also mature into a form that is quite different from that of its youth. Butterfly points also to the psyche, the inner experience, indicating this film’s love affair as an internal process. The ancient Greeks famously represented psyche (or Psyche) as a butterfly, or wearing butterfly wings.

By internal process, I mean that Eisenheim and Sophie act out inner aspects of Uhl’s psyche, as do the other characters, of course. In Jungian terms, we could style the whole event as Uhl’s dream. It is through getting to know Eisenheim that Uhl moves from a man whose fidelity lies with his powerful employer, the Prince, to one who would face death at the same man’s hands as a matter of personal integrity, to align himself with truth and love, rather than power plays and lies. From the beginning, Uhl is interested in magic, and wants to know the secret of the orange tree; so does Leopold, of course. And in the beginning, they are working together against the magician, Eisenheim. Since Eisenheim himself was, of course, interested in magic, which inhabits the space between truth and illusion, the film expounds generally on how one’s values can color motivation. Eisenheim’s interest in magic is motivated by a love of mystery: “I kept thinking I’d find it around the next corner- the real mystery”, he tells Sophie.

Yet somehow, by searching for mysteries, he discovers truth- because, paradoxically perhaps, the soul, which follows the rules of love rather than the rules of reason, holds the deepest of truths about who and what we really are. On the other hand, we have the Prince, whose egotistical approach is to erase mystery. Prefacing Eisenheim’s show at the palace, he says there are no tricks they haven’t seen, that “Everything can and will be explained, all mysteries penetrated”, a statement that hints at his violent attitude towards women. To him, truth is something to be forced from others, as is the case with people who are obsessed with control and lack relationship with the soul and more ethereal aspects which will always be uncontrollable. He frisks Eisenheim after his first trick, and Leopold is visibly shaken after Eisenheim challenges him with a haunting metaphysical question, “Where does power flow from? Skill or destiny- or Divine right?”

This question Eisenheim follows with a reference to Excalibur, bringing into the narrative one of Europe’s greatest enlightenment tales, that of the Arthurian legends and the Grail cycle, which has plenty of anima/animus (inner feminine/masculine) action going on. As far as that goes, we can see that Leopold represents the aspect of Uhl’s psyche that is rejecting of or disconnected from his feminine side; the Prince has already killed a woman. In stories, often the inner aspect a character is disconnected from is depicted as having been killed. Since enlightenment is often a matter of reintegration of rejected aspects of one’s psyche and experience, these aspects have to be reconnected with. Then we are more whole/healed. It took me three viewings of The Illusionist to catch another integration moment, that of Uhl’s reconnection with some child aspect[1] represented as the little ghost boy who walks up the aisle past Uhl in Eisenheim’s theater. They gaze into each other’s eyes a moment, and I realized the boy’s large bulging eyes were an imitation of Paul Giamatti, Inspector Uhl’s, eyes.

[1] This happens a lot in such films as well, echoing a popular concept in psychology/self-help now of the “inner child”.

The whole part of the film where the Inspector is losing ground in his efforts to stop Eisenheim’s new shows after Sophie’s faked death is interesting symbolically. It can be seen as activity very crucial for many folks’ spiritual journeys, that of reflecting on the past, of contemplation on what haunts one’s inner community. In contemplation like this, we are always working with ghosts, one reason lots of folks don’t want to do it; it’s about working with illusions, a good job for our illusionist. When we keep running into the same dramas reenacted from the past, we are also working with these ghosts, but most people don’t understand why the same drama keeps being reenacted in their lives, and blame others and/or resort to “Woe is me” victimhood. In doing such work with our inner ghosts and their dramas, we reclaim our true selves, as we see through behaviors and motives that have been driving unconscious behaviors. As Uhl narrates, this activity takes him (Eisenheim-Uhl) closer to soul, to enlightenment, to true passion and love; Eisenheim is “attracting a more passionate following”. Not only that, he is moving his psyche in the direction of the Divine, as the fellow at the pulpit lectures, “With these manifestations, Eisenheim has given us proof of the soul’s immortality. The spirit has been reaffirmed in the face of modern scientific materialism”, that materialism being represented by Leopold’s insistence on eliminating Mystery.

Subsequently the pace of Uhl’s realizations picks up. He chooses to discover the truth of his employer’s crime even though it means he must transgress rules he would likely not have as the man he was in the film’s beginning; he searches the royal stables, impounds the prince’s sword, sets up the prince’s arrest. Truth has become more important than worldly power. He has found a book containing the secret of the orange tree; within its covers he found the drawings for the butterfly locket. With that clue, the connection between the symbolism of the orange tree and the locket is revealed, though Uhl doesn’t understand it yet; he’s still looking for something logical, something anyone can imitate.

Eisenheim’s orange tree illusion is his biggest secret, the one both Uhl and Leopold were wanting revealed to them. Before Uhl could know it, though, he had to eliminate the inner power hungry control freak aspect represented by Leopold (of course in the narrative, Leopold eliminates himself). The orange tree is symbolically associated with marital love, specifically an aspect of purity on the bride’s part, since the flowers are white. Fruits represent a culmination of some kind, as in a project “bearing fruit”. When Eisenheim sends a boy to Uhl as he leaves the palace employ, this time Uhl looks at the orange tree book and sees how it works, meanwhile obviously fingering Sophie’s locket he found in the stable. He chases Eisenheim, perhaps to give him the locket, and as Eisenheim’s train pulls away, Uhl has his grand moment of enlightenment. He realizes that the clever, soul-connected Eisenheim had arranged for this conclusion, and laughs with a wonderful abandon. The scene cuts to one of the lovers’ freedom in a secluded Alpine valley. And Uhl’s inner figure, Eisenheim, transfers Sophie’s locket back to her, the orange tree as symbol of love on the heart shape cleverly created with a knowing twist; the enlightenment project has grown to bear its fruit. As the lovers embrace, the butterfly symbol is accented with two fluttering away up in the corner of the frame, similar to the two butterflies which Eisenheim had carrying a lady’s handkerchief in his magic show.