The Illusionist traffics where Scoop momentarily dipped its toe, with a conjurer, a stage, and afterlife intimations. Where Woody Allen opted for Lumière bareness, Neil Burger rolls in Méliès alchemy -- movies are barely in their infancy in its late-1890s setting, yet the film's Vienna is already full-on cinematic trompe l'oeil, a malleable, rather gaseous surface, embalmed in amber. Edward Norton, deep in a trance, summons forth a ghostly vision to his rapt audience, and is promptly arrested by the imperial officers surveying the performance; Paul Giamatti, the head inspector, comes to the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) to tend to the "loose ends" of the investigation and trigger the flashback. Norton is the eponymous master, called Eisenheim even though Burger mostly trades the anti-Semitic aspect of the Steven Millhauser short story for the standard star-crossed-lovers arc since childhood separating the protagonist, a carpenter's son, from his blueblood beloved. Upon their next meeting, she's a duchess (Jessica Biel) by the Prince's side, watching the magic show -- the illusionist turns his gloves into ravens for a start, proceeds to bend time and space, and gives his love a glimpse of death. What's smoke and mirrors, what's real? The arrogant Prince, who harbors a violent temper underneath the resplendent uniform, demands to know; Norton accepts his challenge, invokes Excalibur, and clandestinely romances Biel: "The only mystery I couldn't solve was why my heart couldn't let go of you," he tells her, a line ripe enough to justify the Philip Glass score.
Cinema to Orson Welles was an art found between magic and trickery; Burger's sumptuously hollow arabesque cannot approach the coruscating gags of Welles' F for Fake, but it expands the filmmaker's obsession with vision, interpretation and deception, flaunted in Interview with the Assassin. The illicit affair is found out, and Biel is found bloodied and lifeless in the water; shaken by the tragedy, Norton darkens his act with supernatural apparitions, gains a cult and gradually becomes a threat to the monarchy. Blurry spirits appear to wander the stage, though the director knows trick from illumination: The Illusionist abounds in allegedly pure sleigh-of-hand, but the style (silent-movie punctuation lubricated with CGI) is built on misdirection, the better to hoodwink viewers. His rich mugging loosening the upper lip of the surroundings, Giamatti's detective is assigned to decipher romanticism and hucksterism -- bearded and chewing on a pipe like a Van Gogh self-portrait, his detective is a fussy, cynical man vacuuming up scattered clues (gems, lockets, swords, a seed sprouting into an orange tree) through the soupy haze of the fastidious mise-en-scène, yearning to believe "the truth in the illusion." No grand magician reveals the secrets of his magic, yet the film cannot resist undoing its own spell with a climatic gotcha!, a rug-pulling montage that reshapes the drama inside Giamatti's mind while executing Burger's ostentatiously clever tip o' the hat. Straddling fascination and irritation, it provides a good enough show. But the magic of love, the darkness of the arts? It's all illusion.
No tricks up Claude Chabrol's sleeve -- the French filmmaker has no need for gimmickry, The Bridesmaid opens with a tracking shot skimming the surfaces of bourgeois neighborhoods until arriving at the scene of a crime; young Benoît Magimel, getting dressed for a dinner, catches a glimpse of it on the TV screen and is immediately linked to it, even if for now only subconsciously. That's Chabrol sauntering through the market he's cornered since the initial rumbles of the Nouvelle Vague, dropping tantalizing bits of ambiguity, the inquiry steely and relaxed: Magimel dubs his sisters (Solène Bouton, Anna Mihalcea) "vampires," mom (Aurore Clément) calls them "angels," and they're off to meet her latest paramour (Bernard Le Coq). The household's sole male, the son has learned to responsibly disarm the opposite sex, but Laura Smet can't be easily appeased. She's the eponymous bridesmaid, staring unsmilingly while posing for a picture at Bouton's wedding; the festivities proceed as in Le Boucher, but the wooing between the characters is more brusque here, Smet just pops up soaking wet at Magimel's door. "You are my destiny, and I'm yours... that's all," she declares for him at her place, the basement of the dilapidated country mansion she's inherited from her father; white sheets cover the furniture, her estranged stepmother practices the tango two floors above, lurid stories about the past are spun into the air and sprinkled with Nietzschean talk about love murderously proven.
While The Illusionist scrambles to conjure the impression of complexity around its simplistic concepts, The Bridesmaid effortlessly weaves thematic layer after thematic layer from its apparent simplicity. As usual with Chabrol, the feeling is that of an engulfing web being sveltely spun, braiding the characters as their hidden selves are slowly teased into the open -- Magimel keeps the head of a female statue in his room, taking it out to hold it and kiss it tenderly, the image growing unstressed links not only to Smet, but also to Clément and, most of all, the Idealized Woman, literally immobilized for easy control. No sculptural contemplation for Smet, whose quiet flame burns through the mold of classical beauty and into a perilous passion, her intensity both an off-putting threat and an appealing alternative to the orderliness of the protagonist's existence. "I've tried everything," she tells him, but, when Magimel attempts to appeal to her morbid romanticism by taking credit for the murder he read about in the newspaper, the disturbing turmoil nurtured between the two (a turmoil, Chabrol suggests, constantly lurking in the fiber of human relationships) is released. The shallow puppets of Dominik Moll or the smug Theatre of Cruelty of Michael Haneke could learn a thing or two from the auteur's serenely puncturing twinkle: like Chabrol's more recent works (Merci Pour le Chocolat, The Flower of Evil), the picture is a warm cup of milk spiked with acid, the abyss gradually materializing only to leave audiences trapped in the blank gaze of a marble noggin.
But enough about all that subtle stuff: On to muthafuckin' Snakes on a muthafuckin' Plane. With that title, and with that avalanche of hype, does it need to be reviewed? Hell, does it even need to be seen? The contract has long been sealed between film and audience -- the movie promises to suck, viewers promise to make fun of it -- yet can its knowing cheesiness ever live up to the glorious idiocy already constructed in the hearts and minds of bloggers everywhere? FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson is plunked amid a slew of grinning, digitally-rendered serpents aboard a flight, gory wackiness and phallic metaphors follow; one of the slithering villains is "indigenous of the Middle East," somebody mumbles, but the model is, mercifully, less United 93 than Airplane!, with Jackson's deadpan clowning upholstered by director David R. Ellis and buttressed by expedient foolery from SNL alumni Kenan Thompson and David Koechner, everybody hip to the wonky gig. SoaP is the acronym, but the movie is far, far from clean: a snarky genre exercise and its own late-night sketch parody, it parades nothing so much as the force of the public's lowered expectations. Cinema should thrive on the back-and-forth relationship between celluloid and viewer, but when it precipitates "cultural events" of such inanity, hissing becomes the most sensitive response.
Reviewed August 24, 2006.