Lord of Illusions plays out like Clive Barker’s take on film noir, introducing us to the wealthy and notorious stage illusionist Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor): a Criss Angel-like performer who can float and juggle fire without batting an eye. Swann’s wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen), our film’s femme fatale, requests the presence of hard-boiled private eye Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) after a fellow illusionist is murdered by Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman), an occult-leader’s disciple. After a fatal accident involving Swann’s newest illusion, Harry and Dorothea become entangled in a case that fears the return of Swann’s supposedly dead mentor, Nix (Daniel Von Bargen), a man now known as ‘The Puritan’.
When we are first introduced to D’Amour, he sits behind a desk in his New York City apartment, his dirty undershirt and holstered gun a throwback to the grit and grime of noir films such as Scarlet Street [’45], Out of the Past [’47] and Touch of Evil [’58], even if they never featured the booze-lacquered symbolism that Lord of Illusions does. There’s a puppy-dog charm to D’Amour, still reeling, his down-on-his-luck stained on his shirt that’s remained locked away ever since his last case, involving the possession and exorcism of a small boy. Like this boy, our gumshoe feels controlled – not by any demonic being – but by the cases in which he gets caught into, and perhaps there is a diabolical force guiding his feet. This control brings Harry to Los Angeles, film noir’s sunnier city of sin, where he lands on the doorstep of Dorothea, a woman who also happens to be possessed. Like Harry, she is haunted by a past that possesses a different kind of strength, one that forced her to marry Swann.
As a young girl, Dorothea was kidnapped by Nix and his illusion-hungry followers and taken to a remote desert compound surrounded by dust and decay, a nightmarish mirage to her seemingly innocent life. This event acted as a catalyst for Swann, who felt drawn to the portion of his psyche that was still human and not quite god-like. It was this powerful grip the capabilities bestowed upon Swann, by Nix, had on him, both directing and forcing his mind. In saving Dorothea from becoming a sacrificial lamb, Swann inadvertently shifted control onto her, gratitude becoming obligation, as she eventually married – not out of love but out of commitment to a man that gave her life.One could very well look at D’Amour (amour forthright meaning a love affair) and Dorothea as interconnected, entwined in this gravity that brought them together through their inability to disconnect from their pasts. However, that would be looking at their situation in a trivial light, as from our first encounter with Dorothea at a young and impressionable age, she has been under the dominance of a male figure, and while that theme rings true in almost every sense of film noir, it’s a pendulum that swings both ways.
Once in Los Angeles, D’Amour quickly becomes enamored with the glow and aura of Dorothea, first laying eyes on her in a graveyard, their souls resting literally on top of the remains of pasts-not just of others, but their own. After an illusion-gone-wrong takes Swann’s life, it’s D’Amour who is obligated to unearth the secrets behind such a death, the illusion of control operating in a way that tricks our senses into thinking it’s Dorothea who is once again dominated by a male force.
And while it would be easy to point an accusatory finger at Dorothea for allowing these men into her life, seemingly falling under their controlling male gaze, it would be cheap and inaccurate of us to do so. While her deep-seated obligation towards Swann is strong, it’s merely an illusion to the strength of love that keeps Swann so close to Dorothea. She may not have married Swann for love, but he himself has a sort of Florence Nightingale effect playing out. It’s this same love that continues to pull D’Amour in, not just to the case but her life, as they both excavate the skeletons that rattle the cobwebs of their darkest recesses.
As the awakening of Nix approaches, we are driven back to Dorothea’s past as she is once again kidnapped and brought to the same ill-forgotten desert depot from the beginning. It’s a setting that evokes the same feeling of lost control and desolation that separates our film from its noir elements, donning the feel of a Peckinpah western. What kicks up sand and ties itself closely to this type of genre is its necessity for a “strong” male savior, and that’s not to say D’Amour isn’t; he’s determined, gung-ho, fearless and armed. And while all of those are facts, none of them overshadow or take focus from the reality that Dorothea has remained in control and been our film’s savior from the get-go.
After all, it was our captive who inevitably rescued Swann from Nix, releasing him with a well-placed bullet to the chest. In doing so, Swann was able to contain his mentor with a medieval contraption, one that covered his face like an illusion. It’s an act that would ultimately mirror our films end, as Dorothea fires a shot into a revived Nix’s third eye, a symbol of power used to control his captors. This wound only works in so far as to give D’Amour the facade of control, as he overpowers Nix with the help of a dying Swann’s illusion – a variable Swan song if you will, one that acts as an ode to both film noir and the illusion of control.