: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Director: Terry Gilliam
Gilliam’s one of my favorite directors but his stuff can be bizarrely incomprehensible so my chief worry about this movie involving fantastic imagination was that it would be impossible to follow. To my surprise, the story’s fairly linear, though presented in pieces so that the full puzzle isn’t complete until the end. The story involves an ancient man who made a deal with the devil for immortality. That’s the Dr. Parnassus of the title. He runs a tiny traveling show with his daughter and two assistants. I never did quite get the purpose of the traveling show: they apparently sold tickets but it was unclear what the customers got for their money. The troupe is very poor, living like gypsies in their delightfully ramshackle two-decker caravan, and show is artfully old-fashioned. The group come across a hanging man, played by the late Heath Ledger in his final role. He survives the hanging but has no memory and informally joins their troupe, where he uses his considerable persuasive skills to bring people to their shows. Meanwhile, Dr. Parnassus is depressed because his bargain with the devil means his daughter will become the devil’s property on her sixteenth birthday in a few days time and he hasn’t told her. This storyline is the bulk of the film, and it is intersected with aspects of fantasy: the Imaginarium. This is a fantasy land entered through a magical mirror that’s part of the show’s set. Inside the mirror the world becomes whatever you imagine it to be. This is where the film’s style shines so brightly: while the outside world is grimy and delightfully disgusting, these fantasy worlds are absurdly colorful or ominously dark. The person who enters is invited to make a decision: dark or light. Basically they are choosing between Dr. Parnassas and the Devil, which fits in with a new wager the two make: the first to secure five souls wins the daughter.
A few words here about the role of Ledger, who died before the film was finished. In many movies, that might have ended all hope of the film being completed, or given us an awkward film with missing scenes. Here the solution is brilliant and so thoroughly handled that you’d never know there was a crisis. Early on in the film we’re shown that people’s faces sometimes change when they enter the Imaginarium, and fortunately it seems that most (if not all) of Ledger’s “real world” scenes were completed, so only the fantasy scenes remained. Thus it works brilliantly to use other actors in Ledger’s role inside the Imaginarium. The others are made up to look similar to Ledger (but not so similar as to be trying to pass as him) and with similar mannerisms, it works and actually adds a better touch than if Heath had done all those scenes himself.
My favorite things about this film are the striking visuals and the performances. Gilliam is unsurpassed in visuals and he’s at his best here, with amazing contrasts between filth and fantasy perfection. The performances by the cast are astonishing. Every one is brilliant. Because of the chaotic nature of the story, all essentially have multiple roles, or at least play their character at different times of their life, and the variety is mesmerizing. I was truly impressed with everyone. (Heath’s role is sadly smaller than it should have been, and he’s probably the weakest of them all simply because he wasn’t in that much of the film, though there are hints of more dramatic moments later in the film.) In terms of story, I am unsure how I felt. On the one hand, it was fractured and typical Gilliam, and I departed thinking I need to see the film several more times to truly understand it. On the other hand, I couldn’t tell if it really was deep or just felt deep: ultimately the story feels too slight to be profound. But you don’t see a film like this for the compelling story. This is all about fantasy and adventure and wonder. See it for the fun, the wild, the crazy, and just go along with the story. It eventually makes some sense, though you’ll probably be scratching your head at a few things that didn’t seem to fit. Gilliam is not a man who explains things! But it’s a journey well worth the ride simply for the beauty of the experience. This is an amazing film. I’m not convinced it’s great, and I didn’t like it quite as well as my favorite film of all time, Gilliam’s Brazil , but it’s definitely one of his best and I am delighted that Gilliam is back doing what he does best: a delicious blending of fantasy and warped reality. I shall definitely watch this again and again on Blu-Ray. It is fascinating.