Still Lost In La Mancha
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer James Mottram was at Cannes Film Festival last week and here’s his review of Terry Gilliam’s latest film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote…
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro
Terry Gilliam’s latest – and by far longest-gestating – film starts with a pre-title joke. “And now, after more than 25 years making and unmaking…” By the end of this 135 minute Spanish odyssey, you might be wishing for a caption that reads “And now for something completely different”, to borrow from that old segue from Gilliam’s one-time comic troupe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been more than just a pet project for its director; it’s been an all-consuming obsession. Anyone that saw the brilliant 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha will know exactly what I mean. The film vividly chronicled the collapse of the project first time around, after a host of problems – including bad weather and a prostrate problem for star Jean Rochefort – brought the production to its knees.
Since then, Gilliam has made four films, most recently The Zero Theorem, whilst harbouring the hope of one day realising this spin on Cervantes’ classic tale about a knight who loses his sanity. Legal and financial issues delayed the production, and even before this year Cannes Film Festival, where it was chosen as the closing night movie, the film team was fighting a court injunction from the film’s former producer Paolo Branco.
So was it worth the wait? Sadly the answer has to be ‘no’, although in truth there are probably few films that can survive a quarter-of-a-century of expectation. Adam Driver plays Toby, a commercials director who is out in Spain shooting a spot that borrows from Cervantes’ chivalrous tale of Don Quixote and his faithful servant Sancho Panza. In one of the many Gilliam-like autobiographical parallels, the production is collapsing around him.
On set is Driver’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) who asks Toby to keep an eye on his beautiful wife (Olga Kurylenko) – though no sooner is his back turned and Toby and Jacqui are ravishing each other in her hotel room. Earlier that night, Toby has come across a pirate DVD of his old graduation film, ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’, which just so happened to be shot in the same area. That this only just occurs to him is one of the many missteps the script by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni fails to grapple with.
It sends him on a mission to find his original actors: a shoemaker named Javier (Jonathan Pryce) and the 15 year-old Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the daughter of a local bar owner. When he encounters Javier, the man has remained under the delusion for the past fifteen years that he is Don Quixote. The ageing cobbler is also under the belief that Toby is his Sancho Panza (the two will soon be riding side by side, with the sight of Driver on a donkey one of the film’s more amusing distractions).
After Toby is then arrested for the theft of a motorbike, the story really starts to unravel, with Don Quixote riding to the rescue, and accidentally killing two police officers. There’s a confrontation with a Russian vodka baron and a reunion with Angelica, back home after her Toby-inspired movie star dreams were shattered. “Try to keep up with the plot,” says Skarsgård’s overlord at one point. “There’s a plot?” answers an incredulous Driver, a reply that with resonate with just about anyone watching.
While the original script from long ago had Toby wind up back in the 17th Century after being bonked on the head, this story stays in the present day. But it still slips casually between fantasy and reality, sometimes frustratingly so. One minute, Toby thinks he’s uncovered a stash of gold coins; the next he realises that they’re just a bag of old rusty washers. Is it all in Toby’s head? Are these the dreams of a frustrated and compromised artist? The film doesn’t take great pains to ever really say.
Pryce’s outlandish performance is undoubtedly right for the character but grates considerably, while Driver lacks the necessary oddball comic skills for his part. It’s a shame that Johnny Depp, star of the version that folded, is now too old to take on the role; the zaniness he mustered for Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would’ve been most welcome here. Best in show by far is the Portuguese actress Riberio, who is a delight to watch.
Yet for all the criticisms, Gilliam creates a carnival atmosphere, a crazy fiesta of a film that is ragged around the edges. It has the feel of the Gilliam co-directed historical romp Monty Python and the Holy Grail at times. And some scenes, like the moment Quixote mistakes windmills for giants, remain effective. Like any of his projects, there’s more invention here than most movies ever manage. It’s just a pity that after so long, Gilliam – like his protagonist – remains lost in La Mancha.