The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare
After filming the first half of this picture, director Gilliam learned the tragic news that Heath Ledger had died due to an accidental drug overdose. Gilliam is no stranger to films having to overcome obstacles before their release. His 1985 picture Brazil was the victim of an unexcited studio and Gilliam had to break the law to get his version of the picture shown. His attempt to make a film version of Don Quixote at the beginning of the century was ultimately scrapped when financial and natural conditions fought against him. With Imaginarium Gilliam found a way that the film could continue without Ledger’s presence and it hinges on the movie’s core theme: Imagination.
The movie opens in modern day London and follows a old time traveling show made up of the ancient sage Doctor Parnassus, his daughter; Valentina, his right hand man; Percy, and the boy in love with Valentina; Anton. Their show is no longer captivating to contemporary audience and during the opening performance a drunk man stumble through a mirror on stage that places him inside his own imagination. Parnassus has been in a centuries old struggle with Mr. Nick, the Devil who is in a competition to see who can collect the most souls before Valentina’s 16th birthday. If Nick wins he takes Valentina from Parnassus. Into this scenario comes an amnesiac man found hanging underneath a bridge. The man slowly but surely takes over creative control of the show explaining he has Parnassus best interests in mind. As the date moves closer to the bet’s end more of this stranger’s secrets are revealed.
The film is better than much of Gilliam’s more recent films and I credit that to his choice of working with co-writer Charles McKeown. McKeown previously worked on the scripts for Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which are two of Gilliam’s strongest pictures. The story here can be a bit straining on the brain but its able to keep up with Gilliam’s visuals the whole way through. I also like the use of CG effects here not in an attempt to replicate reality (see Avatar), but to make surreal landscapes feel tangible. In my opinion, that should be the purpose of using CG in films. While I didn’t care for the story of The Lovely Bones is also did an excellent job of created fully realized surreal worlds.
The subtext in the film seems to be Gilliam’s own examination of his profession. Parnassus starts out as a man sequestered in a Tibetan monastery where he and his disciples sit around telling the story of the universe. He makes a deal with the Devil and travels out to make his fortune with these stories, being told he will be immortal if he does. Valentina is a living breathing creation and the idea of turning her over to the Devil is what drives Parnassus to fight for independence. In his desperation he turns to a smooth talker who assures him he will be present the show in the way the doctor wants, but instead we see the integrity of Parnassus slipping away.
Like most of Gilliam’s work this will never appeal to a mainstream audience. He is very much an artist who makes the things that amuse him and its always coincidental if they appeal to anyone else. If you are open to a film that prefers to play rather than dictate and hit plot beats then I think you’ll enjoy this picture.