by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I had more than enough time to watch a movie last night, and it was a doozy: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam’s 2009 fantasy that was Heath Ledger’s last film — The Dark Knight was Ledger’s last completed film but, like Bela Lugosi, Ledger did work after that on a project he didn’t live to finish but was completed after his death with other actors filling in for him. The other actors were Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, and the publicity for the film indicated that not only were they working for much less than their usual rates (imdb.com claims that all three donated their salaries to a trust set up for Ledger’s daughter Matilda) but they were all friends of Ledger’s and appeared in the film as a tribute and a way of ensuring that the public would get to see Ledger’s last work. We were assured that Ledger had completed his entire role except for three fantasy sequences, and since the scenes Ledger hadn’t lived to shoot were fantasies it wouldn’t be too jarring that his character looked like a different person in them. Actually, it turned out that the entire heart of the film is the fantasy sequences; as it stands, it’s as if Fred Astaire had died in the middle of shooting a musical and had already shot the plot portions of the film but none of the numbers, and other dancers had been pressed into service to fill in for him.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a frustrating movie because the sheer beauty and imagination of the visuals makes it worth watching — the fantasies look like Gilliam’s old animation sequences from Monty Python would have if he’d had scads of money to create them — but at the same time it’s that annoying sort of story in which literally anything can happen; written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown (who also had a minor part in the film that was left on the cutting-room floor), it’s a plot that really establishes no ground rules, no audience expectations that the film can astonish us by deviating from. It’s the sort of movie that makes me think of Dwight MacDonald’s comment on Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (actually a much more coherent film than this one!): “If all the cards are wild, you can’t play poker.” The plot, to the extent there is one, concerns aging — and, we eventually find out, literally immortal — Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who runs a traveling show he sets up in carnivals with an oddly assorted group of assistants: his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole); his factotum Anton (Andrew Garfield); and his midget — oops, I mean little person — driver Percy (Verne Troyer). In the opening scene they encounter a drunk who crashes their stage and goes through the “mirror” — actually just a series of foil strips — into the secret world of the Imaginarium, where the fantasies take place (and where he immediately falls face first into a pile of mud and it finally starts to look like a Terry Gilliam film — Gilliam even called his production company “Poo Poo Productions” in honor of his obsession with mud and shit, and covering his characters with them, that stretches back as far as Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
Later they come upon Tony (Heath Ledger), who’s hanging by a tree in a deserted spot and whom they rescue and nurse back to health — and who turns out (several reels later) to be the founder of a children’s charity that either he was ripping off himself or had allowed to be taken over by a Russian cartel who were embezzling the proceeds. Much of the film is taken up with the romantic triangle between Tony, Anton (it seems likely Gilliam and McKeown deliberately came up with having the male leads have different forms of the same name) and Valentina, though there’s also another mysterious character that turns up, a black-clad man with a long pasty face and a penchant for cigarettes smoked out of a long holder. He turns out to be the devil and is played by, of all people, Tom Waits (and as much as I loathe his music, in a non-singing role he turned out to be quite understated and effective), and the film builds (more or less) to a climax in which Tony (played by Colin Farrell in the most interesting of the fantasy sequences — indeed he’s so good I couldn’t help wishing they’d scrapped Ledger’s footage and reshot the whole movie with Farrell in the role), his reputation rehabilitated, is about to receive an award from the President (played by Waits from a wheelchair with his cigarette holder in place — obviously he’s supposed to be Franklin Roosevelt) with Valentina on his arm as his wife, when Anton bursts in with an exposé of his charity published in the Sun (how appropriate, given what’s happened since, that it would be a Rupert Murdoch paper!) and the whole thing gets blown: Tony ends up beating Valentina (even though it’s supposed to be a fantasy, the sight of Colin Farrell giving back-handed blows to Lily Cole is pretty terrifying, especially since at the beginning of the sequence he was making love to her in a gondola in a scene reminiscent of the opening of the Giulietta act of The Tales of Hoffmann) and the earth literally opens up and swallows him, leaving Valentina and Anton together and touring with Dr. Parnassus (ya remember Dr. Parnassus?) running a much cut-down version of his show as a puppet theatre.
The other gimmick in what passes for a plot in this film is a race between the devil and Dr. Parnassus to see who can be the first to claim five souls in two days, with Valentina’s soul the prize — since Dr. Parnassus was already an old man when he met and fell in love with Valentina’s mother, the devil offered him a deal: he’d make Parnassus young again and allow him to get Valentina’s mother to fall in love with him, in exchange for which the soul of their child would become the devil’s on its 16th birthday (which explains, sort of, why in the opening sequence Parnassus was lying about Valentina’s age and saying she was only 12 — as if the devil couldn’t see through that!) Aside from the dazzling visuals, there are some interesting touches in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus — including the weird clash of time senses: the imaginarium itself is a traveling theatre that folds up into a self-contained cart drawn by a horse, and the conceit of carnivals and people who make their living by setting up in them as sideshow attractions seems to be decades, or even centuries, old — yet the cars, buildings, street scenes and technological accoutrements (including Tony’s cell phone, whose ring tone is actually heard twice, once in the film itself and once at the end of the credits) mark the setting as our own time.
But this is not the sort of film I usually get into — as I noted above, I generally don’t like stories that are so amorphous and rule-free literally anything can happen; if anything, fantasy requires more discipline and plot logic than any other genre — and the film was a box-office flop, which I suspect it would have been if Heath Ledger had lived to complete it and it had been released normally without all the hype about his friends on the “A”-list coming together and filling out his part so audiences could see Ledger’s last work. It’s not at all clear how Ledger’s career would have progressed if he had lived (or, for that matter, if he’d taken the lead role in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia instead of The Dark Knight), but from what little I’ve seen of his work he seems to have been a strikingly limited actor, superb as the tortured introverts he played in Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain but out of his depth in almost anything else.