There's no way around the shock: The first sight of Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which premiered to an initially sympathetic but increasingly what the huh? audience at Cannes at 8:30 this morning, is as a dead man. ("Why are you fishing dead people out of the river? Leave him alone, he's dead," one member of the Doctor's traveling, existential funhouse troupe tells another.) I can only assume that confounding auteur Terry Gilliam meant to get the obvious out of the way immediately: This is the project Ledger was working on when he died, and this is the sad, off-screen reality through which we are bound to experience the work, so voila.
The typically twisty, Gilliam-shaped truth of this newest patented mishmash of fantasia set-pieces, though, is that Ledger's role, completed in memoriam by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, is the liveliest piece in the puzzle (um, there were a number of walk-outs), a muddle of a deal-with-the-devil plot involving Doctor P (played a la grand old crackpot/Dumbledore by Christopher Plummer), said Devil (Tom Waits), and the Doctor's peachy daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), whom the Doc had previously promised to the Prince of Darkness on her 16th birthday in exchange for immortality. (Dad now regrets that offer.)
Of course, as we have come to know, often love, and sometimes rub our eyes at in any Gilliam concoction, The Imaginarium ripples, in a Through the Looking Glass fashion, with intricate tricks of time-travel and opulent displays of visual fantasy. All roads lead, after a fashion, back to the Victorian-flavored, surrealistic collages the guy used to make in Monty Python days. Small problem here: The plot's a mess of disconnected episodes, and the circus-y visual style adds to a feeling of ... quiet desperation.
What do I do now? Gilliam seems to ask, as Depp, Law, and especially Farrell generously pick up the threads of Ledger's loosely stitched character and do whatever it is the filmmaker requests. Then again, isn't that often the unspoken conundrum in any of the fellow's art projects? "Nothing is permanent, not even death," one character says. "Princess Diana, Rudolph Valentino -- they're all dead, but immortal." The living truth is, it was kind of gloomy in the Palais this morning, a packed auditorium wishing for a better send-off for a well-loved actor.
Hey, on a cheerier note, word in the halls is that The White Ribbon, the striking, Bergmanesque new parable by cheer-averse Michael Haneke, is pulling ahead as the competition film favored to win, especially with Haneke-loving Isabelle Huppert presiding as jury president.