their most famous film export

Film Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus has just opened to huge numbers in Italy with one journalist describing him as having rock star status (whatever that means). Since the film has struggled almost everywhere else, one could wonder why the Italians are lapping it up. Except, with its army of grotesques, a subplot about a man ruined by his own fallibilities and a stream of extraordinary, surreal images, perhaps Italians have noticed the similarities with the work of their most famous film export Frederico Fellini.

Like his , Parnassus is about the struggles of the creative process and dealing with the under appreciative audience with the central figure a potential fictionalisation of the director. And like the more self indulgent elements are what hold the viewer at arms length because at times its as though the director is talking to himself but using his cinematic voice to do it.

The story is a mess. Parnassus is an immortal storyteller who has made a pact with the devil regarding his daughter and Satan has turned up to accept his payment. His tax is five souls, which are captured through a flimsy mirror at the centre of their circus/performance piece which is hooked into a dreamland which exists within the Doctor’s meditative subconscious. Except their show is such an anachronism that it’s out of step with the modern world which is smelly and full of drunks and it’s not until a scandal ridden businessman joins the group that their luck changes.

Breath. In typical Gilliam fashion, the film is less interested in telling a coherent story with strong characterisation than delivering a series of jaw-dropping images and funny business and how the membrane between horrible reality and magical worlds is slimmer than we imagine. Like Baron Munchassen, which shares many of its ideas and themes, it’s probably a flawed masterpiece and will be described as such just as soon as people decide what a masterpiece actually means in this context.

Famously this is the film that was half completed when Heath Ledger left us with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell filling in the gaps when his character enters The Imaginarium. Together they aptly portray a fractured personality but unlike some have suggested, I’m not sure that the tragedy helped the film, for a significant reason I can’t mention because it’s a massive spoiler.

But the revelation is clearly Lily Cole as Parnassus’s daughter Valentina, who gives a funny, romantic, luminous turn that suggests she’s been working in film for years and has none of the forced approach to acting that other models have betrayed. If anything, it's a pity that Gilliam wasn't more disciplined with his writing and didn't put her at the centre of the story, perhaps as an Alice figure. Valentina is by far the most sympathetic character here.

Outside of the fantasy world, Gilliam's camera is restless, almost headache inducing as his (or rather his cinematographer Nicola Pecorini’s) hands shaking as the fragility of reality forever seems close to shattering. The best shots are those in which The Imaginarium pitches up in a thuddingly mundane location like a Homebase car park or middle class shopping mall, its Victorian styling incongruous against the cars and concrete. I was reminded of the tv adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and those moments when the Carabass or Door left the underworld to walk amongst us.

The inside of The Imaginarium is almost totally computer generated and oscillates between aspects of a Bosch painting and Disney as Gilliam almost recreates his Python animations but as part of a plot point with protagonists rather than just as a sight gag. If you’re not careful you could imagine that Gilliam would have been happier, budget allowing, simply to have produced a film set totally within The Imaginarium. Except the final caption shows that he still interested in reality and humanity: "'A Film by Heath Ledger and Friends...'"

But ultimately it's a frustrating experience because you desperately want to like the film more, but can't ever quite put your finger on why you're not as engrossed as you should be. Sometimes it's because clearly improvised scenes go on beyond their natural end because Gilliam likes some bit of business, sometimes the story isn't going anywhere or loses cohesion enough to wonder if a reel has been dropped out somewhere but mostly it's because Gilliam never quite seems to know what kind of film he's trying to make.

But at least he's tried and we thank him for that. Always.

No comments:

Post a comment