The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Like a lot of Terry Gilliam’s films, his latest, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is a strange and chaotic affair that is more interested in stuffing your eyeballs with endless circus-on-acid imagery than it is in a cogent narrative. What’s more, thanks to his notoriously troubled productions, Gilliam often has to change his films partway through to make amends for whatever disaster befell him on the set (In the case of “Dr. Parnassus,” it was the death if his leading man Heath Ledger), making his works all the more off-balance.
Despite all this, however, I actually liked the joyous chaos of “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” I’m not sure if I can encapsulate the labyrinthine plot, or tell you what sort of themes the film was getting at, but I can say that I was swept away by the endlessly creative images I was bombarded with. It’s certainly a sight better than Gilliam’s dour and disgusting “Tideland.”
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the grand master of a traveling theater troupe comprised of his lovely daughter Valentine (model Lily Cole), an irascible twentysomething (Andrew Garfield), and his knowledgable sidekick (Verne Troyer). The troupe travels about in a rickety fold-out stage, where they perform for the masses. They have something sinister going on as well: they lure viewers onto stage, and force them through a prop mirror, where they enter the titular Imaginarium, which is a surreal world comprised of dreams images out of viewers’ imaginations. Why do they lure viewers into this soul-stealing device?
Long ago, Dr. Parnassus made a deal with The Devil (Tom Waits, how perfect is that?). In exchange for immortality, Parnassus must give up his daughter when she turns 16. She’s almost 16, and The Devil has come to collect, but offers Parnassus a chance to keep his daughter, if he can claim five souls before a certain date.
The troupe finds an amnesiac philanthropist/conman named Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging by his neck under a bridge. They rescue him, and he immediately begins making suggestions as to how they can improve their show. When Tony leads new victims into the Imaginarium, he transforms. While in the Imaginarium, Tony is played alternately by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
Makes sense? Perhaps if you’re on the same fevered level as Gilliam, you can gibe with what he’s doing.
I enjoyed this film. It wasn’t necessarily clear, but I loved the carnival-in-a-blender aspects of it. Gilliam seems so hard-nosedly insistent on showing us every last detail of his twisted fever dreams, and his blood-minded forcefulness can be offputting or exhilarating, usually a combination of both. His “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is hilarious and unwatchable. His “Brazil” is beautiful and incomprehensible. His “Dr. Parnassus” is chaotic, aesthetically brutal, and strangely appealing.