In the 1990’s, a pair of French directors brought us two fantastical movies unlike anything I had ever seen before. Delicatessen (1991) and La cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children, 1995) were wildly imaginative, twisted, and haunting, but they were also quite beautiful. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet packed their movies with so many visual delights that repeated viewings were necessary to absorb even a fraction of them. I forgot how much I loved those films. . . until now.
Watching Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I experienced the same awe and wonderment that those French films evoked in me. Imaginarium is like a grown up version of The Wizard of Oz, painted liberally by the storytelling brush of the Grimm brothers. It’s dark and twisty, colorful and lovely all at the same time.
Mainstream audiences might recognize some of Gilliam’s work (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), but this film will probably not garner him any new fans, it is just too bizarre. The Gilliam loyalist, however, will be richly rewarded by this visual masterpiece. Before I continue, just a warning that this review contains mild spoilers.
When the film’s main star, Heath Ledger, died before the completion of the movie, it looked like the entire project would have to be scrapped. Instead, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all stepped in to alternatively play the lead character Tony, and even donated their salaries to Ledger’s daughter. Considering the circumstances, the trio pulled off the feat admirably.
Although the film is set in modern day London, it often felt like a period piece, primarily because the main characters dress up and perform in a traveling vaudeville show on a nightly basis. Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, the ringleader of the outfit, who possesses some magical powers. He is accompanied by his diminutive and mouthy sidekick Percy (Verne Troyer), his gorgeous daughter Valentina (British model Lily Cole), and faithful employee/performer Anton (Andrew Garfield.) Anton is clearly smitten by Valentina, who thinks of him in a more brotherly way.
One night the group happens upon a man who is hanging by a noose under a bridge. That man is played by Ledger, so it is somewhat jarring to see his lifeless body. Since he has not been hanging too long, they are able to revive him. He cannot remember who he is, so they name him Tony, and he joins the group and starts performing with them.
Doctor Parnassus is visited by a sinister person from his past, Mr. Nick (musician and actor Tom Waits.) He has come to collect on an old bet that he and Parnassus made regarding Valentina, who is to be handed over to Mr. Nick on her 16th birthday, which is only days away. It is revealed that Mr. Nick is actually the devil, and he gives Parnassus another chance. Whoever can acquire five souls first will have final possession of Valentina.
The performers begin luring people into another dimension through a mirror on their stage. That dimension/alternate realty takes on the appearance of whatever the person’s own personal heaven must look like.
To a child, it is a candy land of gigantic confections; to a middle aged wealthy woman, jewels and shoes adorn the landscape. Tony accompanies these people to the other world, and this is when Depp, Farrell, and Law step in. Tony’s character shifts appearances each time he journeys into the world with a new person. It is not perfect, but it works.
At its heart, Imaginarium is a classic tale of good vs. evil. Parnassus is white haired and has a flowing beard, while Mr. Nick is always dressed in the black forever associated with “the bad guys” in movies. Tony is a morally ambiguous character whose motives are discovered as the movie unfolds. Anton and Tony have an ongoing antagonism and distrust of one another because of Valentina, which culminates in a major conflict in the film’s third act.
Gilliam uses color remarkably well. Taupe desert tundras against blue skies, black and white, reds, the stage makeup, it is all just beautiful. Gorgeous set pieces abound, from the other dimension, to a mysterious castle housing monks, to the black and white checked background the performers use later in the film. And the costumes…swoon worthy, to be sure. Like I said, this is a visual fete.
I love that Gilliam chose to put seasoned veterans Plummer, Ledger, Depp, Law, and Farrell opposite Tom Waits and Lily Cole. I have a feeling that we will be seeing a lot more of Cole in the future, and she was an inspired casting choice.
So go ahead, embrace your inner kid again, particularly if you love art house films. Check your expectations about linear storytelling and other conventional constraints at the door and watch Terry Gilliam’s best work to date.