Adam Driver stars as an advertising director caught up in the delusions of Jonathan Pryce as a Spanish shoemaker convinced he’s Cervantes’ heroic dreamer in Terry Gilliam’s long-stalled passion project.
It’s been a bumpy road of more than 40 years for director Terry Gilliam from the Knights Who Say “Ni!” — in 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail — to the Knight of Mournful Countenance in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The losses accumulated along the way are all too clear, from engaging humor to humility, control to narrative coherence. Large-scale filmmaking of this kind to some degree is probably always an adventurer’s folly, with an unhinged visionary tilting at windmills in a valiant quest to tame fantasy and reality into companionable travelers that will live forever. But rarely have such brave deeds yielded so meager a reward.
The film’s closing-night premiere in Cannes was in doubt until the eleventh hour, due to a dispute with Portuguese producer Paulo Branco, who boarded the long-aborning project in 2016, 27 years after Gilliam first tried to get it off the ground. A disclaimer at the start specifies that the Cannes screenings in no way prejudice Branco’s rights in the case. This is followed by text wryly acknowledging the arduous journey to the screen that reads: “And now… after more than 25 years in the making… and unmaking.” It’s doubtful that many will consider it worth the wait. Certainly not Amazon Studios, which has pulled out of its agreement for U.S. distribution.
Gilliam’s travails with the film were exhaustively chronicled in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Co-directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were invited to chart production on the movie in March 1999, a decade after Gilliam had first tried and failed to secure U.S. financing for the big-budget endeavor.
The shoot lasted just six days, with Jean Rochefort as the 17th-century romantic idealist Don Quixote, who mistakes a modern-day American commercials director, played by Johnny Depp, for his loyal peasant sidekick Sancho Panza. Budget issues already were weighing on the project when Rochefort’s health caused production to be suspended, creating a domino effect that made everything else fall apart. The series of misfortunes made the production difficulties on Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen seem like minor hiccups by comparison.
The finished film bowing in Cannes is dedicated to Rochefort and John Hurt, another actor cast as Don Quixote in an interim attempt to resuscitate the project.
The power of the imagination is the central theme in Gilliam’s post-Python films, specifically the escape it provides from the constrictions of an ordered society. The penchant for chaos is everywhere in his work, to good and bad ends. For every intoxicatingly surreal nightmare like Brazil, there’s a lump of excruciating excess like Tideland or a muddled bore like The Zero Theorem. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may not be the worst of his misfires, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch.
Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni have ditched the time-travel element, so ad-man Toby (Adam Driver), a cynical egomaniac with a disregard for budget and production schedules, now remains in the present day.
While on a troubled commercial shoot in Spain, he stumbles on a pirated DVD copy of a student film he made in the country ten years earlier, in which the inhabitants of a tiny village played a version of the classic Cervantes story. Going back to revisit the location, Toby discovers that the hopes and dreams stoked by his film later soured. The innocent young innkeeper’s daughter Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has become a whore, according to her father, while the old shoemaker, Javier (Jonathan Pryce), who played Don Quixote, went mad and remains convinced he actually is the legendary character, eternally searching for his elusive ideal of womanly perfection, Dulcinea.
When Toby risks arrest over a fire in the village, the deranged “Don Quixote,” believing him to be Sancho Panza, helps him shake the cops by whisking him off on a shambolic trek across the countryside. While their trippy misadventures with demons real and imagined test Toby’s sanity, Javier’s already tenuous grasp of reality dissolves altogether. They get drawn into the elaborate historical Holy Week festivities, in period costumes, at a castle owned by sleazy Russian oligarch Alexei (Jordi Molla). There they encounter Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and his trophy wife Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), who is also Toby’s clandestine lover; and Angelica, now Alexei’s chattel, to be humiliated at will.
There’s an internal logic buried somewhere in the script, as Toby strives to atone for his arrogance by setting things right for the villagers and Javier/Quixote seeks to demonstrate his chivalrous heroics at every turn. But the movie becomes a tiresome succession of unfunny slapstick clashes and dramatic arcs that go nowhere. “Try to keep up with the plot,” Toby’s boss admonishes him at one point. “There’s a plot?” responds an incredulous Toby, probably speaking for most of the audience.
The responsibility of the creative artist and the transformative capacity of imaginary worlds should have been highly personal themes for Gilliam, and yet nothing here really coalesces into a lucid through-line. The film also skims half-baked points about the commercialization of dreams; the corruption of wealth and its manipulative privileges; even the divisiveness of religion, glancing back to Spain’s Islamic history, when Moors, Christians and Jews cohabited. But whether these threads were hacked beyond comprehensibility or were never adequately developed in the screenplay to begin with is anyone’s guess.
Remote locations in Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands often provide ruggedly scenic vistas, but the movie looks disappointingly flat, and even its busiest production set-pieces have an air of frantic desperation.
The cast really doesn’t have a chance with this material. Driver is always a charismatic performer, with a rangy physicality and an animalistic wiliness that go a long way even in a dud project. But his character is all over the map here, mostly just registering a kind of dazed yet manic confusion. And Pryce’s performance is so broad and grating that any heart in the unlikely bond that develops between Javier and Toby gets lost. Skarsgard delivers a familiar, self-satisfied snarl, Kurylenko is one-note lascivious, and the less said about Ribeiro the better, though her tin-eared dialogue sure doesn’t help. Even normally enlivening presences like Sergi Lopez and Rossy de Palma come and go leaving little impression.
It’s hard to imagine who the audience for this strained literary whimsy was ever supposed to be, but the inescapable conclusion is that in the end it’s likely to be virtually nobody.
Production companies: Tornasol Films, Carisco Producciones, in association with Kinology, Entre Chien et Loup, Ukbar Filmes
Cast: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro, Oscar Jaenada, Jason Watkins, Sergi Lopez, Rossy de Palma, Hovik Keuchkerian, Jordi Molla
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriters: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni
Producers: Mariela Besuievsky, Gerardo Herrero, Amy Gilliam, Gregoire Melin, Sebastian Delloye
Executive producers: Jeremy Thomas, Peter Watson, Alessandra Lo Savio, Giorgia Lo Savio, Javier Lopez Blanco, Francois Touwaide
Director of photography: Nicola Sancho Pecorini
Production designer: Benjamin Fernandez
Costume designer: Lena Mossum
Music: Roque Banos
Editors: Lesley Walker, Teresa Font
Casting: Irene Lamb, Camilla Valentine-Isola
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)