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Fantastic Fest Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

By  · Published on September 29th, 2009

The secret screenings of Fantastic Fest are always a big draw. For some, it is the ultimate payoff for dropping serious bank on a VIP badge (ideally guaranteeing you a seat). In my first year, being that I had a regular badge, it represented endless waiting and missing several other films on the off chance that it would be something really spectacular. On this particular night of Fantastic Fest, at this particular secret screening, we witnessed something spectacular in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The trouble is, when all was said and done, I still have no idea what to think of this film.

Trying to summarize the plot of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is like trying to eat a sandwich the size of a moped; wouldn’t know where to begin. It is basically the story of a traveling sideshow featuring a magic mirror that lets all who pass through it enter their own imaginations. The cast of the show include a dwarf, a young boy, a very old Christopher Plummer, and his disproportionately young daughter. Following one of their less-than-successful performances, they come across a man hanging from a bridge and manage to save his life. From that point, I really don’t know what to tell you. There’s some gambling involved, the devil keeps showing up, a flock of pretty male actors play one character, and some flutes are swallowed. That sandwich analogy, as absurd as it sounds, is kind of apropos of the film itself come to think of it.

Terry Gilliam creates, like Aronofsky, is a director whose work is often visually stunning and Parnassus is no exception. The film looks fantastic and the imagery is absolutely breath-taking from start to finish. Gilliam gives us a landscape of our subconscious and when it doesn’t look like Candyland gone wild, it resembles a more life-like animatic sequence from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (funny enough). I know people who count movies with such visuals among their absolute favorites if for no other reason than it presents them with images they had never seen on film or could even imagine. But a guy like Gilliam is not given to creating films that abide by conventional storytelling tactics. I still don’t believe I fully understand the plot of this film. There is no A to B to C story structure here and a lot of the events are not explicitly defined but rather vaguely, though admittedly artistically, displayed in the images. I just cannot get behind that kind of movie personally because it just feels unfocused to me. But on the other hand, I will fully admit that this is the kind of movie that requires repeat viewings to comprehend and even still there are probably things that went over my head.

So I am going to assess the aspects of this film that didn’t leave me scratching my head. One thing that really stands out to me in Parnassus is the strength of the performances. I cannot go any further without mentioning that this was indeed Heath Ledger’s last film and seeing him on screen was bittersweet. Not to spoil anything, but the manner in which we are introduced to his character is especially unsettling given the fact that he is no longer with us. Heath, and I am not just saying this to pay tribute, does a spectacular job here. He is layered and present in every moment and it is again clear how much work he put into the part. Truth be told, there is not a bad performance to be found in the entire film. Plummer is vulnerable and tortured, Tom Waits is sinister and playfully evil, and even Vern Troyer provides perfect comic relief. But what really impressed me were the three other actors playing Heath’s role. Every time Heath’s character enters the mirror he becomes someone else. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all take a hand in creating the Tony character and I was amazed at how well they fell into it. Obviously they were able to bring to the role their own touches, but they all maintained the essence of the “real world” version (that is to say Heath’s) perfectly. From an acting standpoint, I can understand how it would be incredibly challenging to play a character already established by someone else without making it seem as though they were merely imitating that actor, and these guys all do an outstanding job with it.

I also enjoyed the film’s treatment of the imagination. Parnassus is about as whimsical a film as anyone could hope to create. The things we see as we step through the looking glass speak to an innate sense of wonder and magic that we all possessed as children and that tend to get washed over by the demands of our adult lives. I loved watching the evolution of the images on screen as they moved through a series of conceptual murals as if by stream of consciousness. The cleverness of this film is evident in the subtle humor, and even the not so subtle, dotting these sequences as the climate of these experiences are altered to the individual’s personality. It was all very interesting to watch.

So what is this movie about? What is the theme? What message is it trying to send? If you were to pose any of these questions to me right now, you would be met with an uncharacteristic shrug. Beyond possibly having some basis in the story of Faust that I was able to pick up on, I do not understand thing one about what this movie was aiming for. It was like having a conversation with a gorgeous foreign woman. The film was so beautiful to look at but I couldn’t understand what it was trying to tell me. Again, I will freely confess that it may just be too smart for me. But it is also possible that this film is designed to allow for numerous interpretations. This film could be a Rorschach test using vibrant-colored ink; you will see what you want to see and there may be no wrong interpretation. It’s hard for me to even say definitively whether I liked the movie or not because I don’t feel I have fully digested it.

I have no idea how this film is going to be received by general audiences. I think it will make a good deal of money its opening weekend based solely on the fact that it is Heath’s last film, but I don’t know that people are going to get it. It may be that there is nothing to get and that it is not a very good film, but I can’t say for sure and I simply refuse to judge something this metaphorically meaty based on a knee-jerk reaction. I will say that this will be a very divisive film among movie geeks. I don’t foresee a lot of middle of the road attitudes toward something like this; love it or hate it will more likely be the camps. Did it work as a secret screening? Yes, because there are a lot of Gilliam geeks in house and damn near everyone has a great deal of respect for Ledger if for no other reason than his legendary portrayal of the Joker. But I am glad this wasn’t a midnight screening or it may have broken my brain.

The Upside: The film looks spectacular and does give us a fond farewell for Ledger.

The Downside: It is not entirely forthcoming with all plot points and/or themes and may require several viewings.

On The Side: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all donated their salaries from this film to Heath’s daughter.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.