Thursday, April 18, 2019

Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

It is not just one of the earliest novels in publishing history. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is also one of the most self-referential, postmodernist novels in the history of the form. In large measure, this is due to the extended passages in the second published part, wherein the title character disowns and protests the various apocryphal accounts of the delusional knight-errant written by pretenders. You would hope that kind of dialogue between text and reality would bring out the playfulness in Terry Gilliam, but he shows surprising (and perhaps disappointing) restraint when it comes to the meta-ness of his long-awaited Quixote (and maybe Quixotic) film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Years ago, Toby Grummett shot a student film adaptation of Quixote on-location in Spain. It made a bit of a name and reputation for him, but he squandered it with his subsequent sell-out commercial work. Now, he has returned to Spain to shoot a Quixote-themed commercial for an ambiguous company owned by a Russian gangster. Alexei Mishkin might be dangerous, but he represents good business for Grummett’s boss (a.k.a. “The Boss”). Not surprisingly, the shoot does not go smoothly, so the frustrated and disillusioned filmmaker just walks away when he realizes how close he is to the town where he filmed his student Don Quixote.

Alas, the intervening years have not been kind to Javier Sanchez, the old cobbler he cast as Quixote, and Angelica Fernandez, the young girl who played Dulcinea. The association with Quixote has had a corrosive effect on Sanchez’s mind, leaving him convinced he really is the chivalrous knight. In the case of Fernandez, Grummett’s sweet talking convinced her she really could be a star, but instead, she wound up as Mishkin’s kept (and abused) woman.

Frankly, it is a little surprising there has not been more fanfare hailing the long-delayed release of Gilliam’s notorious film. Surely, it must be the only film that had a behind-the-scenes documentary (Lost in La Mancha) released seventeen years before its theatrical opening. Obviously, this is not the same exact Man Who Killed Gilliam would have made back then, which is probably a shame. The film we have is more than a little scattershot, particularly the third act, which gets clumsily didactic. Nobody likes Russian oligarchs, but (Spanish actor) Jordi Molla portrayal is a caricature of villainy well beyond any possible reality.

Jonathan Pryce is gaunt and convincingly addled as Sanchez/Quixote, but even more importantly, he consistently conveys a keen sense of the man’s innate dignity. Joana Ribeiro is easily the standout for her finely shaded, emotionally compelling performance as Fernandez. Adam Driver is desperately manic as Grummett, but he is as hit-or-miss as the film he appears in. Likewise, Stellan Skarsgard falls back on his old bag of cliched tricks as the crass “Boss.” However, Olga Kurylenko plays his lover Jacqui as quite the entertaining hot mess of a femme fatale.

It is always problematic when we find ourselves giving sensitivity lessons to films, but it should be pointed out the generally preferred terms are “Roma” (or “Rom”) and “Sinti,” rather than “gypsy.” More problematic, Gilliam never really exploits the opportunities Quixote offers for playing games with ostensive reality. Just consider the very premise, whereby Sanchez becomes deluded into believing he is a literary character who is himself famously deluded. That implies he is operating under two levels of delusion.

In at least one way, TMWKDQ directly compares to Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind. After waiting years for both, they turned out to be just okay. Gilliam shows flashes of inspiration and we can see echoes of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King, but diminishing return set in around the midway point. It is the sort of film you will want to like more than you really will. Recommended as an eventual online streaming option for the curious, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens tomorrow (4/19) in New York, at the AMC Empire.