Some movies need but an open mind and open arms to achieve something memorable. While The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a flighty and, at times, lost example of one, it is indeed one of those films.
Crafted by co-writer/director Terry Gilliam, whose noticeably French-influenced style of filmmaking makes him particularly interesting to keep track of, Parnassus will keep you as confused and insecure as its subject matter: a traveling sideshow headed by the immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer).
The only thing consistent about the film is its inconsistency, caused perhaps by the death of its lead (Heath Ledger, as the sideshow’s newcomer, Tony) mid-shoot, which resulted in a complete retooling and the casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as Tony’s other selves; but to shrug off what becomes the film’s critical feature—an askew universe that ties both the characters and viewers into knots—as a mere happenstance would be a nearsighted and lacking departure.
The film starts off on the foot it intends: the wrong one. A horse-drawn, self-contained stage has set up outside a bar where a jester announces the arrival of Dr. Parnassus, a long-bearded mystic who slides onto the set in deep meditation, and bodes the night life to draw closer. Promising entertainment and enlightenment, the jester finds two takers: a rowdy drunk stumbling from the bar and an intrigued movie-goer entering Gilliam’s game of choice and wager.
After the drunk is transported through a mirror on stage to a vast world inhabited by space-jellyfish and oversized tacks (stay with me), he faces a decision: climb a daunting mountain to a promised salvation or visit a nearby pub for one last drink. And, judging by the consequence of his decision, which I will keep a mystery, there is a right and a wrong answer.
This opening gives the film an immediate sense of off-balanced whimsicality, enrolling the viewer in a grand game of blue-pill-red-pill that becomes increasingly taxing as Parnassus and his troupe dig themselves deeper into a competition with the devil (Tom Waits). Whether the viewer goes willingly or not into this experiment, as I hinted in my opening, decides the fate of the film.
Parnassus means to disrupt and deceive its audience. Never does the film wish its viewers to become comfortable or confident, to be content to take at face value what they see. It works at a constant pace to poke and annoy and distract.
The film plays exorbitantly with canted angles, shots that tilt their view and shove their subjects to one side or the other, almost as if shaking the film like one would a piece of paper to rid it of eraser shavings.
Gilliam also provides few establishing shots, which forces the viewer to be constantly calculating where the film is and to what orientation one character is in regards to the next. To further confuse us, he crams his characters in tight spaces and clutters the area to the point that they nearly blend entirely into their surroundings.
Like the travelers, we are made vulnerable and disorientated, unknowing of who to trust or what to believe or what will happen next. The only rule that governs us is that of the gambler: choose a route and live with the consequences.
The gamble, Parnassus suggests, gives us our only confidence. Independent of whether one chooses right or wrong, like in Parnassus’ decision to trade the devil the souls of his future children for the love of his life, another gamble is always waiting on the other side.
The film’s interplay of visual grandiosity and juxtaposed melancholy reflect its dualistic view of the world. Life is a continuity of choices, and the outcome of the decisions one makes are never clear before one makes them. What might seem like the best idea at the time may turn out to ruin one in the end.
This game, like any other, takes its toll on the player. An open mind can only bring one so far in such murky waters. Where the thought is complete by the end of the film, the swirling tangents present throughout the film have a distancing effect on the audience and turn loose story threads into loose nerve-endings that sting from lack of care.
Plummer and the four Tonys shine through the film’s thick clouds, their troubled and mysterious beams too bright for actress/model Lily Cole, who stiffly plays Parnassus’ flirty daughter, and Verne Troyer, who would be well-advised to stick with silent roles.
Parnassus is one of those movies that takes some time to entirely understand and appreciate. Letting it alone as soon as the credits role, it would seem a silly and stuttering film that has the energy potential of a thunderstorm but only amounts to a dense fog that even it gets lost in.
However, like the film suggests, there are always two possible answers to an equation, and the second lets one see to the heart of Parnassus, as a peculiar and cheeky film, but one that is as devoted to its message as it is deceitful in its deliverance.
Luckily, no matter the side of the gamble one falls on, there will surely be another waiting on the other side.