Tattoos & Totems
Part V: The Prestige (2006)
Is our identity defined by our sacrifices? By our physical bodies?
“They’re all your hat, Mr.Angier.”
Nolan always tells an absolutely fascinating story with minute precision to detail with regards to pacing, character development, and story revelation. It’s always amazingly scripted, superbly acted, and it always leaves us with a sense of how desperately we need to see again whatever it was that we have just witnessed; from the backwards, forgetful mini-lives of Leonard Shelby in “Memento”, to what America will soon discover as one of the only (if not the only) summer blockbusters ever with a brain and a bit of philosophy to back up the explosions, car chases, gunfights, and folding cities of “Inception”, to the abracadabrical, captivatingly complex and competitive world of a magician’s rivalry at the turn of the century in “The Prestige”.
It has all the twists and turns that you would expect from the celluloid love child of a passionate Victorian illusionist obsessed with finding the perfect trick to make his name on and a contemporary American filmmaker obsesses with the search for identity and self-awareness. Just ponder for a moment, all the confusions of identity: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) turns out to be Lord Caldlow, the man who attempts to steal not only his rivals tricks, but his daughter as well, and this only after finding a near indistinguishable double (a second identity), though of no blood relation or similarity on a personal level; Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and his mysterious counterpart, Fallon, are revealed to be identical twins living the life of a single individual for the sake of maintaining their dedication to their art; Angier also turns out to be himself, over and over and over again, with the help of the only real-life character in the film, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). These details bring the essential tricks and subterfuge needed to engineer an astonishing act of pure and spellbinding movie magic.
Early in the film we are introduced to an old Chinese magician who pretends to be feeble and bent in order to keep the secret of his fishbowl illusion, foregoing a life as he would normally know it in order to further the mystery of his art. This magician and the discovery of his secret was the catalyst in the rivalry between Angier and Borden. Both men want to be the best in the land, the most revered for what they do (the most prominent name, the biggest identity), and in that quest they are forced to ask themselves what they are willing to do – not only to the other magician, but to themselves and their own lives – and what they are willing to sacrifice for the sanctity of their art.
I stand by my claim of the old Chinese man catalyst even the knowledge that Borden had an accidental hand in the death of Angier’s wife; this act seemed to only fuel an already kindling fire of jealousy over Borden’s apparent superiority as a magician. We get the impression that Angier would have easily left a woman to pursue his magic. He met a woman he cared about in Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) yet he sent her to learn Borden’s secrets as if she were some sort of servant. But, should a woman demand that Angier stop performing magic in order to be with her, he would have laughed heartily, exclaimed in an authoritative tone, “I am The Great Danton!” and disappeared before her in a puff of smoke. Is Borden willing to forego love in his life as well?
Turns out that the old Chinese magician wasn’t a surprise to Borden, after all, as he and his twin, dressed always as “Fallon”, with both men interchanging roles throughout their lives, had been working on a trick that would simply stun the world and catapult him/them into fame and fortune: The Transported Man (literally, a man getting to his destination without experiencing his journey – something Nolan has warned us against before). And, other than having your twin brother lop off two of your fingers with a chisel, they both made the most painful sacrifices anyone could be expected to make: one man had to sacrifice his life while the other had to sacrifice his love. They were both active yet inadvertent participants in the other’s demise; Borden A had created a loving family with Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but Borden B didn’t particularly care for her, and had his own ideas of what an ideal lover might be. Cue Olivia’s mission from Angier. In effect, Borden B’s distaste for all things Sarah led her to commit suicide because she thought her husband didn’t love her – Borden B inadvertently killing A’s wife much as one of them accidentally killed Angier’s. Borden B was the man who ended up sacrificing his life; penitent for the hurt he’d caused his brother, he allowed A the chance to be with his daughter by being hung in prison in a scene reminiscent of “A Tale of Two Cities”, though not before uttering the most apposite last words ever: “Abracadabra.” Through all the heartbreak, sacrifice, and missing fingers, however, they both did everything they could in order to maintain the quest for their ultimate goal.
Upon Angier witnessing Borden’s masterful illusion, he comes to the only conclusion that any decent magician could come to; that Borden is using a double. I’m not sure they had the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” in Victorian London, but they were apparently familiar with the sentiment, because Angier soon sets out on a search for himself in the form of his own perfect double. He finds him, of course, a nearly identical match, but appearance and personality are by no means directly proportional. There is also an inherent danger in becoming close business partners with someone possessing such different ambitions. While Angier A’s goal was to become a world-renowned illusionist, his Angier B’s goal was to get drunk and piss on himself. Of course, the bundle of career difficulty he had with his double only foreshadows the heavy emotional difficulty he would face dealing with the many identical solutions he eventually finds to his problem. Because he always came off as the less magical of the two illusionists, Angier was apparently willing to do more; he was willing to literally sacrifice his own life again and again and again.
Which brings us to Nikola Tesla and his machine. This incredible machine is able to literally transport a man from one place to the other, but as a small residual effect creates a brand new clone of the individual. In the novel by Christopher Priest, these clones, which were basically just lifeless shells, were called “prestiges” by the magicians. Upon discovering the machine’s capabilities by way of two genetically identical felines fighting in a field of top hats that Tesla had been electrifying, Angier takes the brave step of putting himself through the machine, and is quickly confronted (and frightened) by the results. In one of the pivotal scenes of the movie, just after the discovery of what the machine can do, Angier is leaving Tesla to work further and Tesla tells him not to forget his hat. Looking at the pile of identical hats and unsure which one to pick, Angier asks which one is his. Tesla’s chillingly replies, “They’re all your hat, Mr. Angier.” Tesla drives home the fact that these are all very literally the same hat, with the same histories, the same materials, the same flaws and defects, which further’s Nolan’s exploration of identity by questioning the nature of doubles (two men of similar appearance), identical twins (who look almost exactly alike and share much of the same background, but with different hopes and desires), and clones (perfectly identical remakes with the same memories, ideas, hopes, and dreams). Since clones aren’t “the original”, although they are complete and exact duplicates, are they just a body? Or are they the same person? Is their life worth less?
Angier apparently thinks so, or at least is willing to push himself far enough to commit murder on a nightly basis for his art, his conscience apparently only good for a hundred murders. And not only is murdering, he is committing suicide every single night, giving up his own life over and over again to pursue the dream that he and every one of his murdered victims share. He even comments how terrifying it is to go into that machine every night not knowing whether he was going to be the man taking applause on the balcony or the man drowning in the box.
The structure of the film itself takes on the identity of a magic trick that we are told consists of three parts: The Pledge is the first thing we are shown; dozens upon dozens of top hats sitting in the woods, brown leaves swirling around them. We are asked if we are watching closely. In this shot we are shown everything before we know what we’re looking at. We’re given the key before we begin to read the code. The majority of the film is The Turn, the theme of doubles, twins, clones and identity presenting itself in every scene. We are shown early on that birds who all look exactly alike are murdered one by one for the sake of a magician’s trick. We see fields of bulbs, each made identical to the next, and easily replaceable should it fail, which all come together to bring light from apparently nowhere, where there was no light before.
Once all the cats, hats, finches, twins, doubles, and clones flip, dip, crisscross, twist, disappear and reappear before our very eyes, the magician’s secrets unfolding slowly and perfectly along the way, we are given The Prestige. In the final moments of the film we are shown that Borden is the victor in their rivalry, though his victory didn’t come without the sacrifice of nearly everything. Borden, who lost his wife, his twin brother, and his dream in The Transported Man, is forced to live a life as simply himself – albeit with his daughter, the only notion that qualifies as a victory – starting again from scratch, because he sacrificed so much of his true identity in order to obtain his goal. Angier is left to burn amongst his victims, the “prestiges”, the portions of himself that he willfully sacrificed in the name of his quest, because he cheated. He used another man’s discoveries in the dedication to his art – in this case, Tesla’s study of the new “electricity” phenomenon – in order to further his own aspiration. The last image we are left with is literally a “prestige” and, in a sense, the exact same image as the first of the film: one of the rotting Robert Angier’s that the magician had sacrificed. One of the many hats.
The last words we hear fit perfectly in the sense of the serpentine nature of viewing the film itself, but echo heavily as one of the main themes throughout all of Nolan’s work, and the main thing his characters eventually discover on their uroboric quest for complete self-enlightenment:
“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because you don’t want to know. You want to be fooled.”