The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


It is often the films that you approach with the smallest expectations that delight you the most. I knew next to nothing about this other than its impressive cast list and it has proven to be one of the most creative, original productions I have seen.


No one knows quite what to make of the traveling side show when it rumbles into modern day London, pulled by two horses and boasting a tattered backdrop. Indeed, the young people exiting the pub regard it with almost no interest at all, little knowing that there is a story behind it. The side show features one exotic adventure only, a trip through a mirror into the world of imagination, under the influence of the ancient Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). Business has not been good of late, leaving them all in duress, and the birthday of his almost-sixteen-year-old daughter Valentina (supermodel Lily Cole) is rapidly approaching. Only her father has a secret concerning that special day that she must never find out, and it has to do with a mysterious man who keeps showing up here and there over the years without changing in appearance. The only individual in their merry band who knows the entire truth apart from the good doctor is his dearest friend Percy, a dwarf (Verne Troyer) with an occasional attitude problem. Also along for the ride is the aspiring illusionist Anton (Andrew Garfield), who is madly in love with Valentina but devastated in the realization that she regards him as nothing more than a friend.


Their lives take an interesting turn when crossing the London bridge after another unsuccessful show. The reflection of a man hanging to death is shown in a flash of lightning and a daring rescue mission is exacted in order to bring Tony (Heath Ledger) on board. Mysteriously alive in spite of his near-death experience, but also suffering from amnesia (or is he?), Tony agrees to accompany them on their continuing journey... and his presence complicates matters, strengthens Doctor Parnassus's determination to rescue his daughter from a terrible fate, and inevitably takes them on an unforgettable adventure into the imagination. Attempting to classify a film like this is impossible, since it is in a genre all its own. A blend of costume drama, serious drama, modern invention, and doused with a decent amount of Foust, along with some potentially religious symbolism, it is one of the more unique films I have encountered and is not certain to please everyone. Viewers should know within ten minutes or so if this is to their taste, but it's an intriguing mystery-laden story about the danger of initial assumptions. What remains clever about it is that it misleads and misdirects but when reaching the conclusion we can see the hints that brought us to that moment, however surprising. I cannot say more than that for fear of revealing the twist, but beyond the clever script lie beautiful performances and mesmerizing visuals.


Filming was in progress for this magical little movie when Heath Ledger passed away, but fortunately he had completed half his work and only the "imaginative" sequences remained. The script allows for a change of countenance for the character and in a smart move, three popular actors fill in for him whenever Tony is "inside" the Imaginarium: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. The former gives the closest performance to that of Ledger, incorporating his mannerisms and speech patterns, while the others develop their own twist on the changing character. Visually the movie is a delight, full of colorful fabrics and charm in its modern day moments and immense creativity when passing through the mirror or dreaming of the past. There are a few things that might give potential viewers pause, but they are not numerous and rely primarily on whether or not you are capable of suspending your disbelief and taking a stroll through an unusual world. There is an element of magic involved that is never discussed; Doctor Parnassus "controls" the Imaginarium. Essentially, it is an opportunity to explore your imagination -- whomever passes into it influences the surroundings, but it cannot exist outside his influence. The mysterious stranger is in fact the Devil, with whom Parnassus has made numerous "wagers," one of them involving his daughter's eternal soul.


The audience eventually learns that it has been an ongoing battle between the Devil and Parnassus over the years as to which one of them can win over the most souls -- at the end of their trip into the Imaginarium, ticket payers are given a choice as to which path to pursue. One inevitably leads to their destruction and the loss of their soul, while the other permits them to return to the real world. This aspect contains subtle hints toward higher powers (namely that God and the Devil compete for the souls of humanity). One could even argue that minor characters like Anton resemble other aspects of faith -- that he is in fact something of a Christ figure in the sense that he is capable of seeing the truth in his companions, rather than falling for manipulations and lies. It explores the concept that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and leaves its audience much to think about, but also contains a few things which might make Christians uncomfortable -- including a false religion (it vaguely resembles Buddhism, but not entirely) and the momentary use of tarot cards. There is a reasonable amount of profane language -- s**t is thrown around a dozen times, a couple of uses of GD, one abuse of Jesus' name, and two muffled f-words, among many other mild profanities and insults. Fifteen year old Verona smokes cigarettes; her father drinks quite a lot, once appearing intoxicated during a performance. Violence involves several hangings (one of them successful), explosions, and fist fights. One man makes unwanted sexual advances toward Valentina; he chases her around the stage and she punches him in the face several times. Toward the end of the film, there is some crowd violence when a man falls down and people stomp all over him while chasing after someone; a man brutally slaps a woman several times, once knocking her unconscious.


Sensuality is more of an issue. Parnassus shows his daughter one of his old books, which contains some suggestive paintings, one of which includes nudity. One of Percy's costumes is rather vulgar. Skirt-wearing police officers moon the audience (we see their backsides, covered in pantyhose). Passionate kissing in the Imaginarium leads to an off-screen sexual encounter (we hear giggling and the boat rocking, then see the man buttoning up his shirt and the girl in her underwear). Elsewhere, Valentina wears some immodest outfits. More disconcerting is a show performance in which she depicts Eve; she sits in the background wearing nothing but a long wig for a lengthy period of time; we see part of the side of her breast multiple times. (Given that her character is supposed to be only fifteen, this seems unnecessary.) References are made to sixteen being the legal age of consent.


It is not a movie that everyone will like, for it requires a certain amount of patience and an emotional investment. The audience is expected to pay attention and discern the intent and symbolism beneath the imagery. If you enjoy it the first time, however, you will like it even more the second time around, when more of the subtleties become apparent. It's not a journey everyone should take, but is nevertheless effective in being haunting while at the same time allowing the audience to bid one last farewell to its unfortunate leading man. Perhaps the most touching moment comes at the end, when instead of the usual credits, we are instead shown "a film by Heath Ledger and Friends."

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