The Man Who Killed Don Quixote by Terry Gilliam is a confusingly intricate blend of past and present, fiction, reality and filmmaking.
The Persistence of Memoryby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
What is it about Cervantes’ 17th century picaresque classic Don Quixote that obsesses filmmakers yet dooms their attempts to film it? Like its central character, driven mad by obsessive reading of courtly romances espousing unrealistic ideals of chivalry, production projects too seem to fall by the wayside as one director after another fails to capture the would-be knight errant on film.
Orson Welles’ Don Quixote was a potential masterpiece that took up years of his life but was never finished, though filming took place between 1957 and 1969 and Welles worked on it intermittently until his death in 1985. Some edited extracts were finally shown privately to small audiences at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992.
The latest to fall under the antique Don’s spell is Terry Gilliam, animator and director of cult comedies Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Gilliam says he spent 25 years trying to get his Quixote film made. In 1999 he started filming for the first time but he lost his lead actor. The aborted project led to the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. After many mis-steps, pre-production started again in 2008 and after many more cast changes in the leading roles, filming of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally started in 2017 with Jonathan Pryce in the leading role of Don Quixote and Adam Driver as a commercials director on location in La Mancha (making an ad that’s a travesty of Don Quixote) who had made a serious adaption of Don Quixote as a film student and now decides to revisits the places and people he filmed years ago.
Gilliam’s film is an intricate and intriguing blend of past and present, fiction and reality, filmmaking and life. It can be confusing. Overall, it’s a black comedy about the destructive effect filmmaking can have on those who come into contact with it. Directors become obsessed (Driver), ordinary people who are cast as actos have their lives changed by it – either they are driven mad and can no longer distinguish between themselves and the character they played, like the village shoemaker with ‘an interesting face’ who now thinks he is Quixote (Pryce) or their heads are turned by the part they played (Dulcinea) so that they can no longer go back to the life they had before (Angelica, Joana Ribeiro).
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is clever, witty and funny and visually spectacular at times. It is also meandering and quite simply not as enjoyable as you hope it would be after such a long gestation. That said, it is probably better to see it than not, if only as a homage to what might have been over the years. And it really is very clever.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, screened at the BFI London Film Festival in 2019 and was released on 31 January 2020 in the UK. It is now available on Curzon Home Cinema.