Step into The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus… if you dare!

by Mark Burger

Step into The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus… if you dare!

With The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, visionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam has created another weird and wacky realm where nothing is quite what it seems, yet sometimes is exactly what it seems.

This film may not win new converts to the Gilliam camp, but it’s very likely to please his existing fan base — most, if not all, of whom are undoubtedly aware of the difficulties that this particular project presented.

The great Christopher Plummer plays the title role, that of the immortal (and occasionally inebriated) carnival barker and magician who rattles through contemporary London in his rickety, horse-drawn carriage, stopping only to present one of his theatrical performances and invite people to enter his Imaginarium, a realm not unlike Alice’s Looking Glass, in which visitors will find the answer to all their dreams.

Now, some patrons who enter the Imaginarium don’t come out, but they generally aren’t missed. (Gilliam’s fairy tales are nothing if not cheeky, which is one of their strongest assets.)

Accompanied by his scrumptious daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and faithful sidekicks Anton (Andrew Farrell) and Percy (Verne Troyer), the Doctor tries to maintain high spirits while concealing a dark secret: Years before, he made a deal with the devil, here called “Mr. Nick” (a dandified Tom Waits), but it came with a steep price — and the bill is now due.

When not bantering with the everpresent Mr. Nick or reminiscing over old (and not always good) times, Parnassus takes in a young amnesiac named Tony,

who not only proves himself a born showman, attracting larger and larger crowds to Parnassus’ shows with his gift of gab, but also a potential suitor for young Valentina — much to Anton’s increasing dismay.

Tony is played, for the most part, by Heath Ledger, and is first glimpsed hanging by his neck from a noose underneath a bridge. This scene is, understandably, made all the more jarring by Ledger’s untimely death in the midst of production — a death that might well have scuttled the entire production. (Indeed, there were reports to that effect circulating throughout the Hollywood rumor mill early on.)

That Gilliam generally makes up the rules of his own films as he goes along, creating each one’s internal logic (or variation thereof), is probably what saved this project.

It’s easy to identify the title character as a version of Gilliam himself — a creator and progenitor of magic who is nonetheless beholden to it. For all of his acclaim, Gilliam’s well-publicized track record of troubled productions (including The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil and Who Killed Don Quixote? — the latter of which had to be abandoned) almost makes one wonder if he didn’t make his own bargain with the devil.

Gilliam’s solution to “replace” Ledger in the unfinished scenes with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, was both inspired and risky, bringing with it a potential for disaster. Remarkably, the gimmick doesn’t derail the storytelling process, although for some filmmakers, it might well have — those who would have chosen to complete the film, that is.

It’s a genuine surprise when Tony lifts his mask and it’s Depp now playing the role. (When Tony looks in a mirror, even he appears surprised!) Ledger doesn’t disappear altogether at that point, but his screen time decreases, as Law and then Farrell complete the “illusion.” All three actors do an astonishing job of replicating Ledger’s mannerisms, and overall the effect does not compromise the film.

When Depp as Tony says “Nothing’s permanent, not even death,” it brings a tinge of melancholia and nostalgia. The film also carries a dedication to producer William Vince, who died in 2008.

Whether or not that line existed in the script before tragedy befell the production is a bit of whimsy only Gilliam knows.

Yet for all the visual panache (a Gilliam trademark), the story itself is, indeed, a retelling of the Faustian legend as conceived and perceived by its maker. In addition to directing the film, Gilliam co-wrote it (with long-time collaborator Charles McKeown) and also earns credit as a producer, on its art direction team and even as a song lyricist. This is his film, in all its inventiveness, irreverence and incorrigibility.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, not surprisingly, a one of a kind. Yet, this is hardly unexpected, given that Gilliam is, himself, one of a kind.

Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, Broken Embraces, is a complex and heady meditation on love, loss, guilt and, not unlike Parnassus, the lasting joy and legacy of moviemaking.

Jumping back and forth in time, but never losing its footing, the story follows a once-famous, blind filmmaker (Lluis Homar) who confronts the circumstances that led him to his present condition — after having suppressed memories of them for years.

These memories involve Penelope Cruz (Almodovar’s screen muse), as the woman who starred in his last film and became his lover, and Jose Luis Gomez as the tycoon — and Cruz’s sugar daddy — who bankrolled the film only to lose her to its director.

Almodovar expertly weaves the seemingly disparate threads of the plot together as he builds toward an inexorable yet powerful conclusion. Well-acted, wellwritten and directed, and beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, Broken Embraces represents yet another triumph for Almodovar. (In Spanish with English subtitles)

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