Film Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Before viewing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I would have summed up one of my cardinal tenets of film-viewing as: “In Gilliam We Trust.” Terry Gilliam has created many flights of fancy over his career, from the mischievous lunacy of Time Bandits to the distilled dystopia of Brazil, and without exception I have loved them – until I encountered this particular work. While grand in scope and beautifully composed, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus fell flat.

Mise-en-Scène (“placing on stage”, for those unfamiliar with the term)
I mentioned this film’s beautiful composition. Gillian here displays the same loving attention to detail that characterizes the rest of his work. When he wants something to look antique, it is antique all over; when he wants something to look ethereal, it glows and flutters in perfect arrangement. He paints with the broad strokes of spectacle, and he knows his craft, so of course the result is spectacular. If I had watched this film solely as a collection of visuals, as moving tableaus in a modern art museum, I probably could have walked away sated. But this film has a narrative component, and that’s where I got disappointed.

Plausibility/Continuity (warning: this section of the review contains spoilers)
The central conceit of Imaginarium‘s plot works fine for me – after living as a monk dedicated to keeping the universe going through story, Doctor Parnassus made a wager with the devil that imagination would beat… what, banality? (It’s a testament to this film’s confusion that the most significant event of its backstory gets such afterthought treatment that less than 24 hours after viewing it, I can’t remember how it was framed.) Parnassus won immortality but has discovered it to be a curse, as he cannot keep up with the times. This much, I can roll with. I can even buy that a thousand-year-old ex-monk dedicated to enlightening humanity might experience love at first sight for a woman of the twentieth century, and choose to bargain away his offspring for the chance to pursue that love. It’s implausible, but I love a good streak of romanticism. But when it comes to explaining the mechanisms that keep this clockwork toy moving, the hows and whys, these details are completely lacking. It’s as if Gilliam spent so much time and energy making the jet look aerodynamic, he didn’t have any energy left over to build an engine so it would actually fly. Example: the characters of Anton and Percy. It’s obvious why Valentina is with Parnassus, but where did Anton and Percy come from? And if the Imaginarium is in Parnassus’ mind, when Anton falls into the void, where does he go and how does he get out to be in the closing scene? More questions: why is the devil so dismayed when Valentina chooses his door? How does that make her “free”, as he later claims to Parnassus? Why is such a big deal made about Tony having the Satanic symbols on his forehead when he is initially found – and then they return in the Imaginarium – if they’re never going to get properly explained? Maybe Mr. Nick does explain them near the end, but in Tom Waits’ gravelly tones, I was unable to make out the dialogue. I guess my biggest question would be: is the Imaginarium in Parnassus’ mind, or is it in the mind of the person who has gone through the mirror? I ask this one because Joel and I watched it together and I was assuming the latter until Joel brought up the possibility of the former. Something so basic to the plot should be explained, clearly, at some point. Ditto for the reasoning behind switching out actors playing Tony. It’s obvious from the film’s first scene that the Imaginarium can do this; the question is, why does it keep doing it?

When I was doing research for my disability studies’ thesis, I studied a primer on critical discourse analysis. There was one sentence in that text that burnt in my mind like a brand. Reading the entire book would have been worth it to encounter only this sentence: “A voice that is wholly original runs the risk of being incomprehensible.” That is the downside of Tori Amos music, at least the early stuff that I like to listen to, and I fear it is the downside of this film. I’m sure that all of the questions I posed in the previous section have an answer in Gilliam’s mind, and I’m pretty sure he thought he communicated those answers… to the extent that an artist has an obligation to do so. After watching this film, I fear that Gilliam and I are no longer on the same page, regarding where that extent lies.

I know the temptation to canonize Heath Ledger is very strong. He was indeed a fine actor who died young. But not everything touched by fine actors who die young turns to gold. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, while visually spectacular, does not deliver as a narrative and is far from Gilliam’s best work.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.