It’s the slightest of serendipities to note that two days after the great Terry Jones died at the age of 77, another Terry who toiled in the same comedy group and, like Jones, a man who made a second career as a director of feature films, finally sees his 30-years-in-the-making epic open in Japan. Granted, Terry Gilliam is surely a more famous filmmaker than Terry Jones, though I would hesitate to call him a more successful one. Jones’ output was slight in comparison, but it was surely more consistent in tone and quality since it mostly had to do with bringing Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the big screen. Does that make Gilliam, a famous asshole with a streak of artistic idiosyncrasy a mile wide, more ambitious? Perhaps, but given that ambition, it will probably be some time before we’re able to properly judge his body of work.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote won’t make the job any easier. Begun in 1989 and discontinued twice due to lack of funding, a situation that led to a kind of documentary about the failure of the project featuring footage of the abandoned film, this finally finished movie is credited to lead actor Adam Driver’s ability to use his name to attract money, a development that, in and of itself, is deserving of a deeper explanation since Driver has only been a box office draw for about 2 years now. In the film he plays Toby, a hotshot CM director working on location in Spain to film a vodka spot. Under pressure from his ad agency boss (Stellan Skarsgaard), who hopes to snag an open-ended contract with the liquor conglomerate, Toby is essentially returning to the scene of the crime, since his student film was made in this exact same stretch of Spain. It was about Cervantes’ immortal knight errant, and Gilliam implies that Toby has not done much else of aesthetic value since then. When a gypsy drops by the set and tries to sell pirate DVDs to the crew, Toby snatches up a copy of the student film, a move that inspires him to abandon the commercial in order to find out what has transpired in the town in the ten years since.
Quite a bit, as it turns out. The actor who played Sancho Panza drank himself to death. The female lead gave up her dreams of stardom to become an escort, and his Don Quixote, a cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce), went mad and now is convinced he’s the real thing and, as such, is determined to right the wrongs of the world, if only he had the right Sancho to accompany him. Against his better judgement, Toby takes the role.
It’s easy to understand Gilliam’s stubbornness in pursuing this theme. His metier has always been fantasy shot through with a touch of madness, and the man of La Mancha was the original crazy dreamer. If Toby is Gilliam’s obvious stand-in, a creator who relies on many others to realize his vision, then it follows that in the end he has to feel responsible for those who suffered as a result of that vision. Though the storyline mirrors Cervantes’ in an episodic way, the overall plot is original and mostly revolves around Toby’s overcoming his sellout impulses, ending in a frenzy of cross-purposes that requires the participation of not only the ad agency boss, but the Russian liquor company that is presumably paying for all of this. One is tempted to see it as an elaborate raspberry aimed at all the backers who gave up on Gilliam over the years, but there’s not enough narrative meat to bite into much less chew on. Like Don Quixote’s crusades, everything feels amorphous and liable to disappear in a puff of smoke at any moment. Gilliam has fun with Don Quixote’s hallucinations, but for the most part the movie doesn’t display his usual sense of whimsy. Over-determined and stuffed with confusing detail it definitely looks like a movie that took 30 years to make.
In English and Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Tornasol Films, Carisco Producciones AIE, Kinology, Entre Chien et Loup, Ukbar Filmes, El Hombre Que Mato a Don Quijote AIE, Tonasol SLU