The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) – [rate 4.5]

I love movies by writers and directors that aren’t just creating movies, but who are shaping an oeuvre – a coherent body of work that stands out from the crowd. Lynch, Cronenberg, Scorcese, Herzog and many more share this trait. Although it’s less obvious in the case of Terry Gilliam, after seeing his movies I do always feel he belongs in their ranks.

I suppose that Gilliam is not as clear cut (some would say obvious) as Cronenberg – who always explores the separation between reality and the absence thereof and often has the protagonist crossing the line in any way imaginable. In Existenz, the characters take place in an incredibly realistic virtual reality game that has a virtual game inside it and soon you start to doubt whether you know what is ‘actual reality’. In Dead Ringers, twin gyneacologists spiral out of a carefully balanced reality in which each has to see himself and see himself see him. Both living and observing their lives, they don’t like what they see. And you can go on, all his movies are about different perspectives or definitions of reality.

Gilliam is more like Lynch, in that he’s very true to a particular style and his stories are set in the everyday world. But they focus on characters that seem to live in this world, but aren’t a part of it at all. The world is their habitat, but their universe is Gilliam’s/Lynch’s fantasy and in their case, different rules apply. But where Lynch is paradoxical, dark, moody and a bit too weird for most tastes, Gilliam is more charming, enchanted, humorous and sooner silly than weird.

The Imaginarium is a typical Gilliam movie. Nothing is coincidental, but a lot of it doesn’t make sense if you look at it too closely. If you just allow the movie to carry you where it wants to take you, whilst observing the scenery, you can often deduce some of the inspiration for many of the details with hindsight. And if you take that approach to his movies, you won’t be distracted by plot holes or strange incongruities.

In the Imaginarium, you can complain about the wagon changing size and form between scenes, you can be annoyed by the unclear changes in apparent motivation of the characters, you can comment on differences in acting style between scenes, but does it really matter? The movie is not perfect, but it is unique and it casts a spell with a specific Gilliam signature – and I love to be enchanted by this old Python.

A final thing I like about Gilliam – or the way he presents himself and his work – is the serendipity and synchronicity of his enterprises. Whatever goes wrong with his movies and whatever personal problems he runs into in his career, it all appears to serve some purpose or affect his work in some mysterious way. The loss of Heath Ledger is tragic and surely some films in the future would have been better with him performing a key role, but for the Imaginarium it’s almost a blessing in disguise – and I do hope I don’t offend with that remark. It necessitates the performances of Depp, Law and Farrell as stand-ins for Ledger in the scenes beyond the mirror of Doctor Parnassus, but this works out so well, Gilliam couldn’t have imagined it better.