I really must moderate my expectations of everything, as setting them too high can so often lead to disappointment. It so often is the case with movies, especially if the marketing machine has drummed up some of these films to be so wonderful and so definitely worth seeing that one goes in and expects the great heavens to open up! We had such an experience yesterday when we watched Terry Gilliam’s 2009 “The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus”. The film was an extremely self-indulgent fantasy which was based on a Faustian “pact with the devil” story, serving as a springboard for some hallucinatory excursions in the fantastical.
The plot is set in modern-day London where Doctor Parnassus sets up his itinerant and antiquated sideshow troupe. Accompanying him are his young daughter Valentina, the midget Percy, and his assistant Anton. The sideshow is called an “Imaginarium”, and while in trance, Dr Parnassus is able to transport anyone who enters into it into an imaginary world where their dreams come true. Meanwhile, the troupe rescues Tony, a young man that was hanged on a bridge by the Russian Mafia. Tony and Valentina fall in love with each other and the jealous Anton discovers that his competitor for Valentina’s affections may be a liar. The Doctor claims to have lived for more than one thousand years because long ago he made a deal with the devil (“Mr Nick”), in which he gained immortality. Many centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his first-born reached its 16th birthday he or she would become the property of Mr Nick. Valentina is now almost the doomed age and Doctor Parnassus makes a new bet with Mr. Nick, that whoever seduces five souls in the Imaginarium will have Valentina as a prize. Dr Parnassus promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man that helps him win the bet. While the race for the souls is running, Dr Parnassus must fight to save his daughter and overcome surreal obstacles, while trying to undo the mistakes of his past.
The movie belongs to veteran actor Christopher Plummer who gives a magnificent performance as Dr Parnassus. Often of course, he has to act drivel, but that doesn’t take away from his marvellous recital. He relishes the role and the character and makes the most of the material that he has. Heath Ledger, who plays Tony, gave a middling performance although once again the script failed him. It was poignant watching him not only because this was his last role (what a waste of a life!), but also because at one point he has some lines that seem to be very prophetic: “But...Rudolph Valentino, James Dean, Princess Di... All those people... They’re all dead. Yes, but immortal, nevertheless. They won’t get old or fat. They won’t get sick or feeble. They are beyond fear. Because, they are forever young. They are gods...”
As Ledger died during the shooting of the film he was replaced by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as “Imaginarium Tonies 1, 2 and 3”. The plot was convoluted enough to allow face-changing and the stitching is almost invisible. Depp, Law and Farrell were paying tribute to a fellow actor and friend and their contribution is summed up by Depp’s statement: “Well... the unfortunate passing of Heath was such an utter devastation, obviously to his family and friends, but also he was in the middle of... Dr. Parnassus with Terry Gilliam. Gilliam was kind of stuck... We got together - three actors, Colin Farrell, Jude Law and myself - and finished up the role basically for Heath. Basically, what we said was ‘just give Heath... it’s Heath's money and it should go to Matilda [Heath Ledger's daughter].’”
Valentina is played with verve by Lily Cole, and Anton is played well enough by Andrew Garfield. Percy the Midget steals the scene every time he appears, played by Verne Troyer. On the other hand, Mr Nick is a caricature, a cheap and tawdry pantomime Mephistopheles played in a rather pedestrian way by Tom Waits who at least looks suitably slimy and repulsive for the role. The remaining supporting cast is greatly variable, ranging from the excellent to the ordinary. The music by Jeff Danna and Mychael Danna was unobtrusive but not memorable and the cinematography good, although as far as imaginative computer-generated fancies go, I still prefer “MirrorMask” and “The Fall”.
An interesting aside that seasoned piano players will appreciate. There is a visual pun in the film where a giant staircase is being climbed to a lofty peak, that that refers to the Latin phrase “Gradus ad Parnassum”. This means “A Step to Parnassus”. Parnassus was used to denote the highest point of a mountain range in central Greece, a few miles north of Delphi, of which the two summits, in Classical times, were called Tithorea and Lycoreia. In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was sacred to Apollo and the nine Muses, the inspiring god and goddesses of the arts. The phrase has often been used to refer to various books of instruction, or guides, in which gradual progress in literature, language instruction, music, or the arts in general, is sought. “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” is a satirical piano composition by Claude Debussy, from his suite “Children’s Corner”, poking fun at Muzio Clementi’s original collection of instructional piano pieces called “Gradus ad Parnassum”.
I will probably see this film again in a few years time, and I shall be interested in reviewing it again. As it was, I still recommend it to others to see, having all that I have written above in mind, I am sure that you will enjoy it more than I did.
I have been blogging daily on this platform for several years now. It is surprising that I have persisted as the world is changing and "microblogging" is now the norm. I blog to amuse myself, make comment on current affairs, externalise some of my creativity, keep notes on things that interest me, learn something new and to surprise myself with things that I discover about this wonderful, and sometimes crazy, world we live in.
I sometimes get the impression that I am on a soapbox delivering a monologue, so your comments are welcome.