The Ever-Changing Imagination: Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”

Terry Gilliam never directs for anyone but himself, though films like Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Brothers Grimm clearly exhibit more mass appeal than Brazil and Time Bandits. Each of the former represents a movement away from the director’s natural inclination towards magical-realist storytelling and a surreal blurring between fantasy and reality—are more structured and traditional than his earlier works, which bent expectations with their jarring hallucinations of angels battling shoguns and massive floating head-gods. Ironically, the closer Gilliam comes to churning out “popular” Hollywood fare, the less audiences respond; Grimm was a critical and box office flop while Time Bandits took in eight times its budget. His newest offering, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, is a return to his unpredictably absurd style—is driven by whimsical characters caught in a magical plot that conjures images straight out of Dali. Though this will undoubtedly divide audiences, Parnassus oozes fresh entertainment from every pore, and fans will have much rejoicing.

The story follows Dr. Parnassus, an old man traveling the country in a theatre caravan populated by his teenage daughter, Valentina, a midget named Percy, and Anton, a rowdy young boy, as he attempts to break a pact with the devil condemning his daughter to Hell on her sixteenth birthday. Along the way, the troupe picks up Heath Ledger’s mysterious Tony, a supposed amnesia-victim-come-philanthropist who we first meet hanging from a bridge by a noose. As if this wasn’t enough, Parnassus and his devil use a magic mirror that transports those who pass through it to their wildest personal fantasies as a hunting ground for souls. It’s easy to get frustrated with the film’s numerous threads and devices—viewers grasping for an immediate through-line will find their wishes terminally unfulfilled as Parnassus dodges narrative commitment to its very closing shot. The film works like a visual poem—was intended for patient luxuriation rather than frantic anticipation of problem-solving.

And the film is most definitely a visual feast. During the opening a nameless drunk floats from a paper forest to the stars while clutching the tentacles of a flying jellyfish. In a later scene the devil waltzes in a dark void surrounded by giant mirror-shards and portals to Hell and Redemption. If you don’t walk away from Parnassus convinced of Gilliam’s chronic acid abuse, there’s probably something wrong with you. Though all the extreme mindfucking takes place in the Imaginarium, Parnassus’s troupe retains a hint of surrealism in the “real world” by way of their anachronistic caravan, careers, and full-body monster costumes; the film never anchors itself in any sense of reality, and its winding, ever-changing plot is forgiven because of this.

In typical Gilliam form, Parnassus was riddled with production problems—namely the death of Heath Ledger and producer William Vance. Shooting was rushed after Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell stepped forward to complete Ledger’s role—Depp had less than a day and a half to complete all of his screen-time—though you’d never know by watching. Each of the actors vaguely resemble Ledger’s Tony, lending his transformations a believability and thematic appropriateness—the man is never who he appears to be, is always slightly “off”. Between performances from four of Hollywood’s greatest talents and Gilliam’s direction and editing, the entire experience feels fluid and planned. Tony aside, the film’s real attraction is Tom Waits’ Devil, who resembles a Loki-like trickster figure more than an incarnation of pure evil. Wrapped in a Charlie Chaplin suit while smoking a long-filtered cigarette, he tempts nuns with apples, picks up women at the bar, and refuses to win his own bets; he gets off on the game rather than success, and Waits reflects this with his playful, improv-heavy performance.

I can only hope the Devil is this cool.

There are countless throwbacks to Gilliam’s past work; “We Love Violence”, the film’s cabaret dance number, feels particularly Monty Python-esque, and many of the set pieces (a plucked chicken or gargantuan stone head) recall other films. With its swath of allusions and a narrative that adds new meaning to the phrase “stream of consciousness”, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus isn’t for everyone. It’s an artist’s celebration of his art—and a colorful one at that—which some viewers will find convoluted and trippy. Others—fans and those patient enough to be taken for a ride—should love this one.

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