Terry Gilliam finally managed to make his Don Quixote film, after 35 years of false starts, and in many ways it sums up his own career in the most convoluted manner imaginable, which is, again, appropriate. It is utterly beautiful, endlessly inventive and borderline unwatchable. There could not be a more poetic union of filmmaker and subject.
It is called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” although Don Quixote is the man who almost killed Gilliam himself, or at least the project almost did. Many of Gilliam’s productions are fraught with problems; his “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” had to be finished with multiple actors assuming a role that Heath Ledger died in the middle of filming. This film was already the subject of its own 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha,” and over the decades that this project has been in development limbo, two of the actors portraying Quixote have died. The documentary features footage of the late Jean Rochefort as the addled star, and the late John Hurt was also slated to star at one point in this storied history.
At long last, we get a version with Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote, or rather as an obscure old shoemaker who was cast in a film version of “Don Quixote,” and he is brilliant and committed to this flamboyant role. Adam Driver plays Toby Grisoni, an arrogant film director tilting at his own windmills in a stalled production of “Don Quixote,” financed by an even more arrogant man (Stellan Skarsgård) and boasting various moral and creative compromises. (It should be pointed out that this film was co-written by a Tony Grisoni.)
One night, Toby stumbles upon an old bootleg DVD of his first student film, a creatively pure and independently financed venture for which he cast real people, not actors. It was a film version of “Les Misérables.” Just kidding. Obviously, the student film was “Don Quixote,” and rediscovering his first film inspires Toby to seek inspiration from the local people he used. Angelica, a naïve young girl he plucked from a tavern to star in the film, spent the next 10 years fruitlessly chasing stardom in Madrid; her father crushes a glass in his bare hand when asked about her.
And the shoemaker has spent 10 years living as Don Quixote; he is sitting in a barn, in costume, screening the film on a sheet. A bewildered Toby, dazzled by events and the burning sun, finds himself conscripted into service as the shoemaker’s Sancho Panza. The pair take on wild, paranoiac, nonexistent foes and surreal situations like a dead horse, a squatters’ encampment, Spanish inquisitors and the lost Angelica, transformed into Quixote’s Dulcinea del Toboso.
Gilliam is always unmatched as a director when it comes to dreamy, nightmarish imagination, and a straightforward narrative rarely squares with his wild, cluttered visual presence. His films are more experienced than watched, and “making sense” seems far down a list of priorities. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is a postmodern fever dream, with a meta- approach befitting a 400-year-old work of literature that has remained ahead of its time and is notable for its own self-referential qualities, like a second part that refers back to the fame generated by the first part.
You can lose count of how many stories within the story pile up in layers, especially when you consider the mudslides, egos and financial mishaps in the stranger-than-fiction story of how an unhinged, creative genius eventually made a movie, about a movie, about an unhinged, creative genius.
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is currently available to rent.
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