For his penultimate film at Cinema 1544, Zac Davis decided to go the Terry Gilliam route and show us one of his trademark bizarre films – 2009’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. It was a difficult film to follow, but it generally comes out in the end. Let’s just get right into it.
Doctor Parnassus is a bizarre old coot, and by old, I mean like apparently over a thousand years old. And by bizarre coot, I mean that he runs a traveling troupe of street actors in the good old “We can do blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do all three, but we can’t do love and rhetoric without the blood – blood is compulsory” style.
He’s accompanied by a mini-me and by his young daughter Valentina, who has a bit of a thing for the kid named Anton that does sleight-of-hand. You might wonder, how is it that a thousand-year-old ascetic has a teenaged daughter? Don’t feel bad, it’s a good question.
The answer is that there’s a lot of magic (and more than magic) going on behind the scenes here. Parnassus was once a mystic monk who happened to fall into a bit of a Faustian relationship with…well…the Devil. I mean, who else do you fall into a Faustian relationship with, hmm? Parnassus made a wager with the Devil over winning some souls, he won, and for this he was given immortality. Which he eventually tired of, especially as he wasn’t granted eternal youth to go with it and he had the bad luck to fall in love with a nice young lady who wasn’t into dating millenarians. The Devil, in pity, gave Parnassus his youth and mortality back, in exchange for Parnassus’ firstborn at the age of 16. I guess it’s a fair trade, even if your wife does die in childbirth and you get turned super-old again.
So how does Parnassus win his souls? Well, he’s got a magical mirror, and people who pass through it enter into Parnassus’ “Imaginarium”, some sort of mental realm where they view idealized versions of the world and are “tempted” by both Parnassus and the Devil – whoever wins the temptation wins the soul.
Parnassus, in his struggle with the Devil, continues to carry out his soul-tempting via the mirror despite the fact that he doesn’t really have any ongoing wager with the Devil at the moment. Well, at least not yet. As you’ve guessed from the Sound of Music quote above, there are only a few days left before Valentina turns 16, and the Devil, well, he’s kind enough to offer yet another wager: First to five souls, and if Parnassus wins, he gets to keep his daughter. This really is more than fair.
But as the bet gets ramped up, there’s a bit of a monkey wrench thrown in the whole thing. Valentina and Anton rescue a man who has been hanged from a bridge, and who claims to have amnesia about his entire situation. He spits out a small metal pipe, which we later learn he had stuffed down his throat to keep his windpipe open for just this sort of emergency. (One might suspend disbelief about the fact that hanging typically works by breaking the neck, not asphyxiation, because I suppose a story is a story.) By the end it would appear that he’s lying about the whole amnesia thing but in the meantime he tries to get into a fling with Valentina (eventually succesfully) and he tries to modernize the traveling street stage for the benefit of Parnassus and his soul-winning.
Going by “Tony”, the newcomer acts as not only a barker for the troupe but also as a bit of a guide for the souls who are enchanted into the Imaginarium. How Tony comes to understand any of what is going on is frankly not explained, but given the difficulties of the filming, I think we can cut Gilliam some slack. It takes some convincing to get the first volunteer to step into the mirror, but Tony gets it done.
He follows the woman into the mirror, where as the guide he magically changes into Johnny Depp. This face-shifting has been quite adequately foreshadowed (good) and was 100% necessary to the completion of the movie due to Heath Ledger’s unfortunate demise in the midst of filming. Going into the film, I knew what was going on there, but even if I hadn’t, I think it would have worked. Tony Depp guides the woman into making the “correct” choice – the one where her soul is won by Parnassus – and she is returned to the world in bliss, as are three subsequents who follow suit. Parnassus 4, the Devil 0.
Of course, things can’t stay quite so simple as all of that. Four Russian mobsters that Tony has defrauded – the dudes who hung him, apparently – catch sight of him playing barker and chase him into the Imaginarium, where he becomes Jude Law. There’s a big chase involving ladder stilts, and Tony escapes harm. These mobsters, however, succumb to the Devil’s wiles and the score is now evened up, 4-4.
With time running out on Valentina’s life, Tony heads into the Imaginarium intending to be the final soul himself. Again, it’s never as simple as it seems, as Valentina, having discovered somewhat of his past via the tabloid newspapers and distraught over learning of Parnassus’ original bet (I mean, can we find a third motivation just in case the audience doesn’t buy the first two?) decides to enter the Imaginarium after him. And while Colin Farrell Tony is being treated to visions of charity-laundering and children’s organ harvesting (the latter perhaps a fantasy not intended to represent real-world Tony’s sins – it’s not clear) and mistreating Valentina, she decides to pop off and win the bet for the Devil. Parnassus (also in the Imaginarium due to the whole trance thing he does to maintain its existence) see that he has lost the bet and his daughter simultaneously, and becomes distraught. The Devil, however, ever helpful, actually feels bad about winning Valentina and tells Parnassus that he’ll give her back up if only Parnassus will contrive to give him the slippery Tony. Somehow it’s the metal windpipe he keeps that has been preventing the Devil getting his due on this guy – apparently nobody ever thought to try to kill him in any other way. Or maybe he was dipped in the river Styx by his mother while she held him by the throat. I don’t know. It doesn’t make much sense, and it doesn’t matter. Parnassus manages to trick Tony, who is in the midst of being lynch-mobbed in the Imaginarium, into taking a fake pipe which crumbles in his throat, and he dies.
Valentina is released to the world, while Parnassus is forced to wander his Imaginarium for a while so that he can finally return to the world years later to stumble upon Valentina and Anton and their young daughter. The End.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, above all, a deliciously strange film. By all accounts, it is an even more bizarre movie than first envisioned, because of the storyline changes necessary to work around the death of the lead actor mid-filming. It’s worth seeing, just for that. It’s worth seeing just knowing that Depp, Law, and Farrell – all apparently friends of Ledger – came together with Gilliam and completed the film out of their love for Ledger. They didn’t take acting fees, instead donating the proceeds to Ledger’s daughter. There’s just an air of charm that the film can’t escape, for all of its on-camera and off-camera darkness. And what better symbol of that is there than Tom Waits’ Devil, who never misses an opportunity to gently make right on the wrongs he has wreaked?