Jungian Archetypes applied to the film The Illusionist

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Jungian Archetypes applied to the film The Illusionist

Post  julienbc on Sun Jan 30, 2011 6:09 pm

The film The Illusionist, like all other pieces of literature, draws from a clear set of archetypes that all humans draw from. This film is no exception. In each of the examples giving, it will be shown how each scenario can be related to Jung’s archetypes.
The Illusionist is a period/ mystery film that stars Edward Norton, who plays the films protagonist Einsenheim the Illusionist. The setting of the movie is mid to late 1800s in Vienna. The film chronicles the life of Eisenheim, from the start of his life, to his arrests, and finally to his escape. We learn from the police inspector Walter Uhl through his conversations with the Crown Prince Leopold, the prince who issued Eisenheim's arrests, that Eisenheim was the son of a cabinet maker, who developed an interest in magic and illusions after seeing a traveling magician. He secretly became friends with the Duchess van Teschen, and the two feel in love. But they're love was never allowed to flourish because of the social stigma of a lady being associated with a low class cabinetmaker. In an attempt to hide from the Duchess's father, the two are caught and are never allowed to see each other again. After that Eisenheim left Vienna to places unknown for reasons unknown, only to return years later as an accomplished and incredible illusionist. During one of his spectacles in the presence of the royals, Eisenheim requests the assistance of an audience member, who turns out to be non other than the Duchess, who is now engaged to marry the Crown Prince Leopold. They're romance secretly rekindles, and although they attempt to keep it hidden, the prince finds out and tries to have Eisenheim arrested for various reasons. Amidst all of this, the Duchess is mysteriously murdered, with clues pointing to the prince himself. Through mysterious, paranormal stage illusions, Eisenheim tries to show the proof to the audience that the prince is a murderer.
Right off the bat a very distinct Jungian symbolic archetype is shown; water vs. desert. The theme of a force preventing the growth and flourishing of an opposing faction is used many times throughout the film, and there are various examples. To name a couple, there is Eisenheim’s father not wanting him to practice magic and preventing the growth of his skills, and there is the unfavorable, greedy government, who sucks the truth (not to mention the wealth) from his people by poisoning they’re knowledge with lies (the desert drying up the water, and the poisoning of the waterhole.) The main example I want to expand upon however is how the royals never allowed the relationship between Eisenheim and Duchess van Teschen to flourish. The royals acted like “the desert” in the most literal sense, by drying up the sprouting love of the two. Like a plant being deprived of water, it remained small and frail until it dies. That is the exact case with Eisenheim and the Duchess. Through the intervention of the royals, they’re relationship became very stressful and very weak, until it was finally killed when the Duchess was forced to separate from him. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the power of “water” becomes very clear. When Eisenheim calls up a volunteer from the audience, only to be the Duchess, a rebirth happens with the love of the two. Like a birth of anything it started out small, until it flourished and flourished in secrecy (as to not let the desert dry it up) into a very passionate love. To add to the water symbolism, the two don’t recognize each other until Eisenheim asks her to look into a mirror with him on stage, which resembled the two looking into very still water.
Like all well crafted stories, many, if not all elements of literary archetypes are present. But there is a very clear dominant situational archetype, and that is The Task. The Task is a very commonly used archetype, as I believe it is one of the most relatable. At some point in every individual’s life, they have run into a task that they have no choice but to accomplish, and be it big or small, it is part of the human experience, which makes it very relatable.
In The Illusionist, the main tasks for Eisenheim were to escape: to escape with and “rescue” his love Duchess van Teschen, and, in a sense, re-identify himself as a great illusionist, because from the Crown Princes’ influence, he lost his title and was arrested.
There are significant parallels between Eisenheim’s rescue of his love and the archetypal Task of saving a princess from a locked tower. Although the Duchess not literally trapped in a tower, she is figuratively, because being a woman during that period, her husband had more of a say over her than she did. He doesn’t let her be free, he controls every move she makes through fear, and uses her more as a means for a son than a companion. He doesn’t even love her, he is with her solely to produce and heir and because their marriage would give the Prince strong connections to her powerful royal family. With this constant fear and unhappiness, it is like she is trapped and is a prisoner, much like the princess in the tower. Eisenheim, being the hero of the story tries to save her from her prison by secretly being in a relationship with her, and by plotting a scheme to allow the two to run away together.
The other main task is Eisenheim’s goal of re-identifying himself. Like the previous example, there are many parallels to this common archetype. Midway through the movie, after the death of the Duchess, and the many attempts that the Prince has made to have him arrested, Eisenheim retreats to china for a short period of time, making no contact with anyone from his life. When he returns, Eisenheim the Illusionist is no longer a famous name, but is an infamous memory from the year before. He begins to perform small shows, no longer focusing on theatrical shows for the rich, but become very dark and occult-heavy performances for anyone to see. He only performs one illusion during the show, which is to apparently use actually necromancy and to return a spirit to the mortal world for the length of the performance. His secret to how the trick is done is a complete mystery, and is guarded by his Chinese henchmen who brought back from China. His shows begin to become extremely popular, and attract so much attention that the Prince sends his main chief inspector to view it, and specifically to find out how the trick is done. It is when Eisenheim resurrects the spirit of the Duchess, who claims she was murdered by the Prince, do people start to remember who Eisenheim was, and they begin to see through the lies of the Prince.
Through these magic shows, Eisenheim reestablishes his fame, and, like the archetype says, re-identifies himself as the great Illusionist.

The character archetype that I chose to elaborate on is the Star-Crossed Lover. This is a very commonly used theme, and is a very important theme to the film. There are many parallels between the Star-Crossed Lovers of The Illusionist and other famous lovers of different pieces of literature, such as Romeo and Juliet. In Romeo and Juliet, the two are in love, but are not allowed to see each other because of the rivalry of their families, which results in them both dying. In The Illusionist, this is the same case. The Duchess and Eisenheim are not allowed to be together because of their differing social class; like how Romeo and Juliet were not allowed to be together because of they’re differing families. Another parallel I found was how both stories have a tragic twist for the lovers. In Romeo and Juliet, they both, after a misunderstanding, commit suicide. In The Illusionist, because of the resistance to the Prince’s (who I consider a kin member like Juliet’s family) wishes to keep the two separated, the Duchess gets mysteriously murdered.
To conclude, The Illusionist was an awesome movie. Although the story was full of predictable archetypes which we all know, the film was so well-told that it leaves the viewer guessing until the very end. The film was so entertaining, not only because of the interesting story, but because of its presentation and production. It was filmed with a sepia colour, tied with perfect impressionist music set such a gripping atmosphere. I highly recommend it.


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Post  Mr. C on Sun Feb 06, 2011 5:16 pm

Julien - wow...a very thorough and excellent review. Well done, sir. I particularly enjoyed your detailed analysis of the Water vs. Desert symbolic archetype. You correctly pointed out character, situational and thematic content that all helped to reinforce this archetype. And your comparison to R&J was helpful as well. A text book analysis. Cheers!
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