Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (a TIFF preview)

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown
Starring Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell
North American Premiere at TIFF

I like to go into film screenings cold - unprepared, not having read, seen or discussed anything that I think is likely to prejudice my viewing - and I don't get into celeb gossip, so I had no idea, for example, that this was Heath Ledger's last film before his unfortunate passing earlier this year. The ingenious solution, that of using Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in succession as various permutations of the oily character Tony was, I felt, one of the film's stronger points. In some odd way that I wouldn't have anticipated, the four of them really did seem like they could have been different faces of the same man. It's a bit vague as a statement, I'll admit, but Gilliam's fantastical film doesn't much lend itself to clear or convenient explanation.

Check out the trailer here and you'll see what I mean.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a travelling side show run by the aforementioned, his beauteous daughter Valentina, and faithful sidekick Anton as the story begins.
But Dr. Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer in a brilliantly nuanced turn, is a drunken, tortured, inveterate gambler who lost a fiendish bet with the devil (Tom Waits, more about him in a bit) years ago, one that puts her into Beelzebub's grasp at the tender age of 16. Along comes Tony to shake things up and possibly save the day - or can he?

Inside the story is a whimsical fable that ruminates on the nature of good - the complete freedom of the imagination - and evil - that reasonable sounding voice that tells you to be happy with financial security and material comforts. But if it has a philosophy, the film's heart lies in the consistently vivid and memorable characterizations, and in a story about a father and his daughter, anchored by Plummer and the doe eyed, red haired Lily Cole as Valentina. Tom Waits is also particularly strong in the role of the devil, a quiet spoken demon who softly encourages giving into ones' addictions, various fears and insanities. If there is a devil, I'm sure he's rather like that.
The visuals add to the film's magical sensibilities, with cartoonish landscapes, a storybook universe that reminded me of those Dali-esque netherworlds Porky Pig used to end up in (am I crazy or what??). Gilliam's films are often seen as rather obtuse, not linear in logic certainly. You may think you've caught onto something, but then you seem mistaken, or do you..? And its elevation of the idea of free imagination isn't seen as an entirely positive development, either, as the Imaginarium and Parnassus' craziness lead the lot of them just as often into destructive chaos as to anything good. If you're prepared to simply give yourself over to its eccentric universe and capricious logic, however, you'll have a lovely time with it. The Dr. does know how to put on a good show.

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