First, let’s just be glad that it finally exists. Terry Gilliam has had so much trouble getting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made that the film has inspired two documentaries over the course of its nearly three-decade-long journey to the screen. In this, Gilliam joins fellow cursed genius Orson Welles, who worked on his own adaptation of Quixote for thirty years, which was left unfinished at the time of the director’s death. (Competing edits later emerged, none entirely satisfactory or complete.)
It is of course perfect that these romantically deluded projects would center on the most romantically deluded fictional protagonist of all literature, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de La Mancha, the wannabe-knight errant who gave his name to idealistic quests doomed to failure. Gilliam appreciates this: He has himself become something of a Quixote figure over the course of his struggle to get the film made, a trickster visionary fighting a losing battle against his times, tilting against the windmills of commerce and cynicism. As a character says in this film, “We become what we hold onto.”
The very real possibility — maybe even the probability — of catastrophic failure clearly excites Gilliam; he makes almost no concessions to what is expected of him, or what might please contemporary audiences. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote bears the hallmarks of this director at his broadest, nuttiest, and most extreme, with unhinged performances, overt symbolism, and a cacophonous story that has the logic of a thousand dreams happening simultaneously. It is an uncompromising work that will make many viewers frustrated and even furious.
I adored pretty much every single glorious, gorgeous goddamn minute of it.
The story follows Toby (Adam Driver, once again proving his talent for comedy), a bored but highly paid director of slick TV commercials, in Spain to do a vodka campaign that utilizes the figure of Quixote. One night, he finds someone selling a bootleg DVD of his thesis film from ten years ago, itself a Quixote adaptation he shot with some friends and nonprofessional actors at a nearby local village. Hoping to reconnect with the idealism and passion of his youth, he travels to the town (called Sueños, which means “dreams”) and finds that his production there back in the day changed lives irrevocably. Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the young daughter of a local innkeeper, got delusions of grandeur and headed for the big city, where she reportedly fell in with the wrong crowd. (“A village girl can’t go back to a small town after being in a movie.”) And the aging shoemaker Toby got to play Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) still thinks he’s Cervantes’s legendary faux-knight errant, charging a few euros a pop for passing tourists to see “The Living Quixote.”
Through elaborate, unlikely circumstances, Toby and Quixote wind up on a series of misadventures that combine a medieval quest with contemporary topicality. Toby finds himself in the Sancho Panza role, the naysaying realist (and, in this version, also deeply selfish) squire who attempts to be the voice of reason and gets dragged into the vortex of Quixote’s medieval dream. Indeed, the whole story has a charmingly absurdist pull — characters wind up in situations and on journeys without clear motivations. But that’s Gilliam at his purest: He loves the sweet delirium of a story that runs on images, impulses, and manic energy instead of on characters and logic. If you feel a little lost, that’s because he wants you to be.
Few directors can pull that off. Gilliam can, because the energy of his scenes, once you get on their wavelength, is infectious. The plot isn’t so much episodic or circular as it is spiraling, with everything — story, symbols, characters — accelerating toward a climax set in a castle where the present and the past, royalty and oligarchy, art and commerce, religion and parody, all collide. Gilliam’s understanding of his images is elemental, even basic: Madonna-whore complexes, noble idealists fighting snake-like moneymen, temptations and counter-temptations and great satanic bonfires. The ideas here aren’t new — they may even be clichés — but the giddy exuberance with which the director throws the elements against one another, redefining and revitalizing them, gives them life.
And Gilliam is aware that these are not new ideas. Over and over again, Toby and Quixote find themselves in magical situations that are revealed to be ruses and masquerades. But as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote continues, the occasional real-life explanations seem to matter less and less; we slip further into the folly. It’s as if Gilliam is pulling us into his madness, into a world where things are both better and more dangerous. This has been the great theme of his career: that the world needs dreamers, however wrong or deluded or doomed to failure those dreamers may be. That also happens to be one of the great themes of Cervantes.
The setup of the film suggests that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, like many other films at Cannes this year, is ultimately another meditation on the artist’s role in the world today, with perhaps even a suggestion from Gilliam that he himself, despite the uncompromising nature of his career, has departed somewhat from the ideals of his past. (“An artist must be cruel,” Angelica tells Toby. “Are you cruel?”)
The plot also recalls in its broad strokes the director’s earlier masterpiece The Fisher King, with its tale of a cynical, successful celeb who reconnects with his true self after befriending a troubled dreamer in whose mental breakdown he played a part. But The Fisher King’s lines were clean, its narrative straightforward; it delineated, for the most part, a clear border between fantasy visions and lived-in reality. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is the opposite of that: a cinematic kaleidoscope where the narrative turns on itself, characters keep transforming, and symbols crash against one another. It’s a tale told from the perspective perhaps not of the fallen hero but of his mad redeemer.
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