Jeliza-Rose's best friend and cynical adult alter ego is a disembodied dollhead named MystiqueI think it’s cheating for a filmmaker to tell his audience how to watch his film, what preconceptions to abandon, what kind of perspective to adopt in advance — but rules are implicit in “cheating,” and Terry Gilliam is not a great proponent of rules. In fact, if there are rules covering how to introduce your film at a screening packed with your fans, I doubt they include warning your audience that many of them won’t like the film they’re about to see. But that’s what Gilliam did at a screening of Tideland on October 9th in his cheerful, shambling, deceptively self-effacing way.

Like most of the audience I thought he was talking about someone else when he said that, but somewhere in the middle of Tideland I wasn’t sure. We had been instructed to try to view the film from a child’s perspective, and we had also been given permission to laugh — though I heard more hollow laughs of shock and disbelief than warm chuckles of mirth, and an occasional overloud guffaw of “this must be what he meant when he said the film was funny.”

So I’ll never know how I would have reacted to Tideland if I hadn’t been primed by its director. Even with a warning it’s a difficult film to watch. I saw a couple of people walk out of the small theatre before it was over, which I’m guessing is rare for a Cinematheque audience. Even Geoff Pevere, asking the audience to stay for the Q&A session with Gilliam after the screening, seemed resigned to the expectation that not all of us would make it that far.

It’s unmistakably a Gilliam film and unapologetically his darkest to date, in spite of his insistence that it is about innocence of a child — and not even innocence spoiled, but innocence as an armour that renders a young girl impervious to the horrors of her environment. Gilliam’s films are set in a world where reality and fantasy coexist, where your nightmares burst through your apartment walls (or out of your closet) to carry you away, where your only escape from the impossibility of reality is madness. In Tideland the three most sympathetic characters dream of, and intermittently succeed in, escaping from reality. Jeff Bridges, as aging rocker Noah, dreams of escape to Jutland, but the closest he gets is a nightly “vacation” — an armchair-ride to blissful stupor on heroin that his daughter Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) helps administer. Ferland, who delivers the most eerily compelling performance of child as adult since Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire and renders it all the more spellbinding by carrying almost every scene of the film, portrays a girl who seems desperate to escape to the rabbit-hole world of her favourite book, but whose own imagination creates set-pieces every bit as dreamlike and mercurial as those dreamt by Alice. And Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), a developmentally handicapped young man who Jeliza-Rose befriends after Noah brings her back to his Texas homestead, escapes from the tyranny of his mad taxidermist sister to pilot a submarine across rolling wheatfields.

Also unmistakably Gilliam is the company he keeps in art direction and cinematography. He has claimed responsibility for assembling, rather than creating, the look of his films, notably Brazil, in which the entire 20th century is compressed into a single set. The cluttered interiors of Tideland are grimy and disgusting, but you still want to climb onto the screen and scour through the detritus yourself, to try and piece the graffiti together to discern its deeper meaning. The first look at the inside of Noah’s childhood home is reminiscent of a scene painted by a Tom Waits tune, down to the empty beer bottle on the neglected upright, everything covered in thick sepia dust. The highlight of the exteriors is the Saskatchewan prairie, from the opening shots of grasses swirling in the wind like doll’s hair in a mason jar to expansive shots of trapezoidal sunbleached woodframe houses that would not look amiss in one of Gilliam’s old cut-out animations.

So once we decide that this is not the feel-good movie of the year, but that it’s some kind of artistic endeavour that will be good for us, it’s left for us to wonder what is Gilliam getting at? What’s his point? Does he know? I think maybe he doesn’t, and I’m sorry for not taking advantage of the opportunity to ask him at the Cinematheque screening. If we look at his body of work, we find a lot of protagonists who are fighting against some kind of oppressive authoritarian evil, struggling to prove that their brilliant fantasies, or brilliant madnesses, are not only real, but trump the realities that are imposed upon them. By no coincidence, this is also the plot of The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut, Jack Mathews’ account of, well, I think he covered it after the colon.

But that’s not what Tideland is about, and I don’t think it’s about innocence either. Sure, we have an intelligent, imaginative girl struggling to deal with a dystopian reality, but do purity and imagination win out? Does Jeliza-Rose succeed by superimposing her rapid-cut play-world, where the scenario that doesn’t match is swapped out for another like a Viewmaster slide, over her real-life world of junkie dads and dinners of ant-infested peanut butter?

Maybe Tideland is that bitter medicine, that art that’s supposed to make me a better person. Art is supposed to challenge, and it’s certainly a challenging film. Art is supposed to make you ask questions. And the question I’m asking is why should I tell you to see this movie if I don’t think you’ll actually enjoy it? Well, I think you should support Terry Gilliam and allow him to keep making movies that people may not like. If you really don’t think Tideland is going to do it for you, consider picking up a couple of other Gilliam movies on DVD tonight. And throw in Fulton and Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha, the documentary account of the doomed production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, another Gilliam project which, if it had ever been committed to film, may well have turned out to be eerily autobiographical.