The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a 2009 fantasy film directed by Terry Gilliam and written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown. The film follows a traveling theater troupe whose leader, having made a bet with the Devil, takes audience members through a magical mirror to explore their imaginations and present them with a choice between self-fulfilling enlightenment or gratifying ignorance.
Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, and Tom Waits star in the film, though Ledger’s death one-third of the way through filming caused production to be temporarily suspended. Ledger’s role was recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell portraying transformations of Ledger’s character as he travels through a dream world.
The ancient Doctor Parnassus’ (Christopher Plummer) theatre troupe, which includes sleight of hand expert Anton (Andrew Garfield), confidant Percy (Verne Troyer), and Parnassus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), performs outside a London pub. A drunkard (Richard Riddell) barges onstage and crashes through a stage mirror, where his face changes (Bruce Crawford), and he enters a journey of imagination that culminates in a choice between a torturous-looking twelve-step program and going to a pub. He enters the pub, but it explodes; in the real world, Parnassus says he has lost another one to Mr. Nick (Tom Waits).
Mr. Nick reminds Parnassus that in three days Valentina turns 16, and her soul will be his. Drowning himself in drink and playing tarot, Parnassus tells Valentina that, centuries earlier, he ran a monastery where monks perpetually recited stories to sustain the world. Mr. Nick challenged their beliefs by sealing their mouths. The world survived, but Parnassus claimed it was because of stories told elsewhere. Mr. Nick bet Parnassus over who could win souls of more people, to crave either stories of imagination (Parnassus) or addictive feeble desires (Mr. Nick). Parnassus won 12 souls before Mr. Nick, and gained immortality.
As the troupe crosses a bridge, Anton spies someone hanging beneath it. They rescue the hanging man (Heath Ledger), who spits out a golden pipe when revived.[note 1] Claiming to have amnesia, the man joins the troupe as a barker. Parnassus becomes despondent over the impending loss of his daughter. Mr. Nick visits Parnassus, revealing the hanging man is a disgraced philanthropist named “Tony”. He offers Parnassus a wager: Valentina can stay with whomever wins five souls first.
Tony convinces the troupe to remodel the show as more attractive to contemporary Londoners. In an upscale mall, Tony lures a woman wearing Louis Vuitton (Maggie Steed) into the mirror and follows her, where they enter a pastel-colored dream-world of giant high-heel shoes, bejeweled eggs, and floating lily pads — representative of this woman’s imagination. The woman’s imagination also changes Tony’s face (Johnny Depp); upon discovering this, he dances elegantly with her, and they spy a motel run by Mr. Nick. However, Tony convinces the woman to take a gondola toward a pyramid alone, winning a soul for Parnassus. Soon after, Tony falls backward out of the Imaginarium, changing his face back to normal; the woman exits shortly after and writes a blank check. Three other women clamor for a turn. Each emerges elated and pays well; Parnassus wins three more souls.
Four Russian gangsters see Tony, who owes them money, and they chase him into the Imaginarium. As they threaten Tony, who has once again transformed — into his vision of a successful man (Jude Law) — Parnassus tempts them with a police recruitment song, promising they will enjoy being cops who can legally brutalize people. Mr. Nick lures them to a woman that takes the form of their mother with a giant babushka. It explodes; the score is four souls apiece.
Parnassus reveals to Valentina that in an hour she will belong to Mr. Nick. He finally explains he made a new pact with Mr. Nick to be youthful again, so to win the heart of a woman he loved. In exchange, any child he fathered would become Mr. Nick’s property at age 16. Valentina attempts to run away, but Tony enters the Imaginarium to give his soul to Parnassus; in exchange, Parnassus must teach him the trance which powers the dream-world. Valentina returns as he tries to enter the mirror, but Anton blocks them, having discovered from a recent newspaper how Tony is a fraudulent charity scammer.
Anton jealously struggles with Tony; in the scuffle, first Valentina, then Tony, enter the mirror dream-world. Influenced by Valentina’s desires, Tony’s face changes again (Colin Farrell), and with Valentina, floats along in a boat. Shortly after an impoverished child disrupts their boat trip, Tony is suddenly now a philanthropist, speaking at a fundraiser. Anton appears as an outspoken child and exposes Tony as a fraud. A mob pursues Tony as the landscape disintegrates around them. Anton falls into a void, and Tony flees into a desert.
Valentina enters a shifting landscape of broken mirrors. Distraught over her father’s bargain, Valentina gives her soul to Mr. Nick. Disillusioned at his easy victory, Mr. Nick offers to trade Valentina for Tony. Chased by the mob, Tony flees to a hilltop gallows, but Parnassus confronts him, holding two copies of Tony’s pipe, which he used to brace his windpipe against the noose. Parnassus challenges Tony to choose which pipe is genuine. He chooses wrongly, and, when the mob string him up on the gallows, he finally dies. Mr. Nick keeps to his word, and Valentina is freed, but he knows not where. Nick abandons Parnassus to the wilds of his Imaginarium.
Heartbroken, Parnassus only emerges from the Imaginarium years later, where he finds that Valentina married Anton and has a daughter. He watches them from outside a restaurant window, but when tempted to join them, he is stopped by Percy, who reappears as a hotel worker. Teaming up with Percy once more, Parnassus sells toy theater replicas of the Imaginarium on a street corner. Mr. Nick, everpresent, invites Parnassus over to him, but Percy successfully puts an end to the temptation.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this film:
First Published: Dec 23, 2011 – Last Updated: Apr 2, 2014