The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (film, 2009)

I really enjoy Terry Gilliam’s work. No matter how patchy it can be, it is at least unique, and sometimes brilliant. Time Bandits was a childhood staple. Brazil helped me mope through early adulthood (until I grew the hell up. There is always a way out, man. Always. It’s still a good film though). Baron Munchausen rewarded multiple viewings. The Fisher King made me teary, Twelve Monkeys made me think, The Brothers Grimm was just… awful. But all power to him. When I went to the press screening of the film, I buttonholed Mark Kermode who was talking to Gilliam. I did it on the pretence of thanking Mr Kermode for quoting me in a piece of his and attributing the quote. But what I really wanted to do was stand near Terry Gilliam. Which I did, and I exchanged like four whole words with him. I was a bit starstruck, actually, and I generally don’t have time for all that celebrity nonsense.

This review of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was published in Death Ray #21, one of the last major film reviews I did for that publication. Or for anyone, come to think of it. The fudge story is true, by the way. My wife still brings it up from time to time in that way wives do when you make one tiny error once five years ago. Ahem.


Director: Terry Gilliam

Writers: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown

Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

Gilliam’s movies promise bizarre, hallucinatory experiences (this seems to go for audience and cast alike). If you’re a Gilliam fan, then judged by this criterion alone, Parnassus is an unchallenged success. It is so utterly bonkers it encourages bizarre behaviour from those who see it. Thom, late of this title, who came to see the film for Death Ray’s sister mag FilmStar ended up wandering round a half-deserted warehouse party at 4.00am, accompanied by a Swedish philosopher and nursing a bloody nose after our screening. Whereas I, hastening back to Bath in a fugue, spent eight pounds sterling on a massive bag of fudge. Eight pounds. On fudge. A magic bean moment I blame firmly on Gilliam’s movie.

Parnassus, amongst Gilliam’s highest budgeted films, is going to divide critics. It’s so divisive it divides the individual. You emerge blinking from the cave of the cinema unsure as to whether you’ve even enjoyed the film. For me, a whole weekend of bewildered internal dialogue followed. This is not the norm. Critics often make snap judgements, but Parnassus defies the quick kill. It is a supremely disorienting piece of cinema.

It’s a threadbare work, like one of Gilliam’s baroque troupes of mummers which feature so prominently in his movies, you can see past the tattered cloth backdrops to the sorry workings behind the scenes. Question is, does this really break the magic or is it part of it? There are many bumps and knots in the weft of Parnassus, we have to ask if they were intentional or not. (Not that that makes much difference, but at least it should give us a rationalist viewpoint to safely stand and examine Gilliam’s brain-shaggingly chaotic proceedings).

In common with many of Gilliam’s films, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is about a fabulist finding a retreat from the real world in story and insanity. Whether you regard Gilliam’s aggressive defence of his inner manchild as deranged or beautiful depends very much on your age and situation, but in Parnassus this juxtaposition of bad adult/ good child is more pronounced than ever, so much so that at the finale we get an actual manchild (a disturbing CG head swap) attacking an adult.

The titular doctor (a brilliantly sorrowful Christopher Plummer) is a monk, thousands of years old thanks to a diabolical deal, whose horse-drawn wooden charabang-cum-stage has seen better days. His audiences are the drunken and unpleasant, churning out of nasty alleyway nightclubs in the small hours; his refuge during the day the grey environs of Battersea power station; like the doctor, a powerhouse gone to wrack and ruin. These daylight moments at the filthy campsite, full of cold light and introspection, are the moments of a sober drunk, shot with a horrid clarity that would do Alan Bleasdale proud. The no-frills scenes are a marked contrast to the lurid CG flights of fancy, hearkening back in style to Gilliam’s animated Monty Python work, that await those who pass through the Doctor’s magic mirror and make use of his power to unlock their imaginations.

The story, such as it is, has Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, also brilliant), come to collect on his deal with the doctor – Parnassus’ daughter’s soul. This is not the price of his initial deal, but simply the latest in a series of wagers the pair have had down the ages. The doctor and the devil decide on one last contest: First to collect five souls gets to keep the gorgeous Valentina (Lily Cole). Into this fraught moment comes the mysterious Tony (Heath Ledger, mostly), who Parnassus’ gang of daughter, immortal dwarf Percy and foundling Anton, find hanging under a bridge. A sleazy man with a dubious past, he becomes love rival to Anton, but it might be he who holds the key to Valentina’s salvation.

At least, that’s what appears to be going on. Gilliam’s grasp on story can be shaky, and this one has more holes in it than most of his movies. There are numerous narrative non sequiturs, we’re never really sure what Parnassus actually does, and there’s a garbled subplot about Tony perhaps being the living embodiment of the “Hanged Man” tarot card. The only really coherent element concerns the changing face of Tony – forced on the production by the untimely death of Heath Ledger – which is handled so well that you’d think it was the idea all along.

Charitably, we could say that the chaos is intentional, that this is a film about an ageing man, wearied by the vicissitudes of life, whose own story is so long it is getting patchy in places. Like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, this is a story about old age, but there was much denial in that, as if it were saying we can escape the creeping grasp of the reaper with a winning smile. With Gilliam approaching 70, Parnassus is more about the acceptance of it.

Fate plays a large role. As he observes Mr. Nick’s almost incidental pursuit of Tony, something akin to watching Satan chase Loki, Parnassus is a bewildered bystander. Is Gilliam making some kind of point about the lack of control we have over our lives, about how quickly they pass no matter how long they are, and about no matter what our priorities may seem to be, our children always come first? A broken, dishevelled Parnassus, ultimately saved after running too far into his own insanity, ends up watching his daughter flush with the joys of motherhood through a restaurant window, yet refuses to go in and impinge on her happy grown-up world. He’s decrepit, but is soon back to a diminished version of his old tricks, play acting to the end.

On the other hand, Gilliam could be telling us that the only constant in our lives are dwarf sidekicks. You never know with this director.

Gilliam says this film is an autobiographical piece, and you can see why (we can be thankful that although Parnassus rolls into town offering rare delights most people are too ignorant to appreciate, Gilliam only invites comparison with himself with impish self-deprecation). Gilliam is Parnassus, acknowledging his self-indulgent individualism causes risk, but completely unrepentant. For Parnassus, and Gilliam, Mr. Nick is always there, tempting him to act the fool, to play dangerous games that have dire consequences.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is then perhaps the most personal of his films. It is so specific to Gilliam, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to decide if it’s a classic or a catastrophe. It is also the most insane. Watching a Gilliam movie is to be exposed to the full horror of someone else’s subjective worldview. With that comes the realisation that, as those who are exposed to the Imaginarium see, we all live alone, in discrete little universes built in our own heads. That, at the very least, is a gift, and it’s operating at full power here.

Did you know?

Star Heath Ledger died partway through filming but Gilliam, who has a history of troubled productions, managed to salvage the film. Ledger had filmed most of his real-world segments, but died before the movie moved from London to Vancouver for studio work. Gilliam introduced the idea that the Parnassus’ magic mirror could alter the appearance of those that travel through it, thus Tony is portrayed by Johnny Depp (a friend of Gilliam), Jude Law, and Colin Farrell (both friends of Ledger) in different imaginary world sequences. It’s well done – as Tony travels through the mirror with others, their imaginations reshape his face, with Farrell providing a suitably dastardly Tony for the concluding act.

The three actors agreed to give their fees to Ledger’s daughter Heather as his will had not been updated to include her.

The film was Gilliam’s first collaboration with scripter Charles McKeown since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.


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