The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Melbourne International Film Festival)
Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Joana Ribeiro, Olga Kurylenko, Stellan Skarsgård
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There are moments of mad genius here, and a warrior-poet’s heart beats under the film’s tarnished armour…
We could spill a lot of digital ink discussing the torturous and winding route The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating passion project, has taken to the screen. We could spend paragraphs on how he’s been wanting to make the damn thing since around 1989, and how his first shoot was scuppered by a Job-like run of disasters, as chronicled in the fascinating 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha. We could dwell on the cast members who have come and gone, including Robin Williams, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Jack O’Connell, John Cleese, Jean Rochefort, Michael Palin, Robert Duvall, and John Hurt, over the course of the film’s development, or the legal issues that still surround the film.
We could, but while all that noise might add context to Gilliam’s film, none of it answers the most pertinent question: is it any good?
Well, yeah, kinda.
In the form it has finally taken, Quixote focuses on Adam Driver’s arrogant and dissolute commercial director Toby Grisoni (the character name a derivative of co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni), who finds himself in the Spanish desert filming a vodka ad that borrows iconography from Miguel Cervantes’ novel (drum roll, please…) Don Quixote. Coincidentally enough, this isn’t the first time our man Toby has brought Quixote to the screen in this precise area; he shot his film school thesis, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a black and white micro-budget opus, around the same patch of Spanish sand back in the day.
Stumbling across a bootleg copy of his old movie by chance (or is it? Gilliam, as ever, is happy to use coincidence, magic, and madness interchangeably to progress his story and themes) drives Toby, in a fit of nostalgia and dissatisfaction, to abandon his troubled production, along with his overbearing, gauche boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and his boss’s trophy wife, Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), with whom he is having an affair, to go scope out the tiny village where he shot his film oh so many years gone by.
There, he finds that his past actions have had dire consequences. For one thing, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the innocent bar-owner’s daughter he cast in his film, seduced, and subsequently abandoned, ran away to Madrid to become an actress, and wound up a whore (the film’s words – Quixote has deep issues with women, using the contrast between Angelica and Jacqui to work the tired Madonna/whore binary to breaking point). For another, and of more pressing concern, the photogenic old cobbler (a wonderfully off-kilter Jonathan Pryce) that Toby cast as his Don Quixote is apparently still in character, the cracked actor still wearing his rusting armour and acting out the part for tourist pennies, all the while believing him to be the literary knight, whose delusions of chivalry led him on adventures in a time when notions of honour, loyalty, courage and heroism has become passe.
Which is precisely what happens here, more or less, with our ersatz Quixote deciding that Toby is Sancho Panza, his faithful squire. For his part, Toby grumbles but goes along with it; for one thing, he’s feeling a tad responsible for the old boy’s current predicament; for another, seeing the raw passion and creativity of his student effort has put into sharp focus how hollow and unfulfilling his current pursuits are. And so we’re off to the races.
Or we would be, if The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was interested in racing. Rather, it ambles, idling through the desert on plough-horse and donkey, as Toby and Quixote make their way from setpiece to setpiece, with reality becoming more and more permeable around them until we’re moving from the 21st century to the 17th, from reality to imagination and back again.
Not literally, and not in such easily demarcated terms; while Gilliam at one point conceived The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as a time travel story ala A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the film as it stands is set in a much less clearly defined conceptual space; we’re in Spain, we’re in the past, we’re in Toby’s mind, and maybe Quixote’s – is the old cobbler’s derangement infectious? And spreading? If not, where are these knights and monsters coming from?
We’re certainly in Gilliam’s mind, there’s no mistaking that, and the scars left over from the pitched battles fought over Quixote are as easily discernible as the toolmarks left over from the previous iterations of the script. This Quixote is largely about the slings and arrows that artists must suffer for their art, and also the fools they must suffer in pursuit of their vision (especially when they’re chasing millions to make a movie, eh Terry?). Capitalism is the villain here, and to underline the point a villain hoves into view late in the game in the form of Aleksei (Jordi Mollà), a Russian vodka magnate/mafia boss who is dangling the promise of future investment in front of Toby and his venal boss and, largely for the sake of narrative and thematic convenience, has taken Angelica as his concubine. The climax is set in an ornate and looming castle, because this is a Terry Gilliam film, after all, where Toby and Quixote must try to rescue the maiden fair, while reality pretty much disappears up its own event horizon around them.
But to what point? Indeed is there one? It’s not readily discernible. Gilliam retreads a lot of thematic ground, such as the seductive comfort of madness and both the price and the prize of unbounded imagination, that he’s covered in earlier works, such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King, while his explorations of the compromised relationship between art and commerce seem at times churlish and self-indulgent, and never quite arrive at an intact thesis. There are ideas aplenty in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but they’re deployed scattershot; threads are picked up, followed for a while, then abandoned as the film scrambles to its next gorgeously designed locale or imaginatively mounted flight of fancy.
Not that we should cast aspersion on the film’s design and imagination – Gilliam remains one of cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, and his busy, baroque, cartoonish aesthetic is all present and correct. There are moments – the onrush of a trio of misshapen giants, a girl being sacrificed to a bonfire – that are among the most striking images he’s ever committed to film. The spectacle is, well, spectacular.
Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is the film that Gilliam, ultimately, could make, rather than the film he wanted to, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels compromised and a little half baked as a result. There are moments of mad genius here, and a warrior-poet’s heart beats under the film’s tarnished armour, but that’s not quite enough to carry the day.