The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Cannes 2018, review: Fun, but a struggle to comprehend

There is so much goodwill towards Terry Gilliam’s Quixote project, decades in the making, that it’s easy to forgive its problems – of which there are many

Kaleem Aftab
Saturday 19 May 2018 10:36
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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote - trailer

After 25 years of trials and tribulations, the curtain will finally come up on a Don Quixote film directed by Terry Gilliam on Saturday, when the movie will close the Cannes Film Festival. As the opening titles state: ”This movie was made, and then unmade and then made again.”

Gilliam’s Quixote project took on mythical status in 2002 with the release of Lost in La Mancha, the making-of documentary about Gilliam’s first attempt to make the film. Starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, the project ran into so many production problems it was eventually abandoned.

For many years it seemed that Gilliam’s Quixote would go the way of Jodorowsky’s Dune: become the film that never was that; one of the greatest films never made.

The documentary, directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, ensured that one great Gilliam film inspired by Quixote entered the movie canon.

And the score will remain at one, because while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a fun, inventive frolic with a great premise, it is slow to get going and at times is a real struggle to comprehend.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is less an adaptation of Cervantes’ classic novel and more a movie about filmmaking, a Felliniesque circus about a director who struggles to compete with his own early success.

The director in question, Tobias Grummett, is played by Adam Driver, who since his revelatory performances in the TV series Girls has become a darling of auteurs. He’s been a busy man at this Cannes Film Festival as he’s also starring in Spike Lee’s brilliantly funny BlacKkKlansman. Driver carries Gilliam’s film through the doldrums.

Grummett is a hotshot director who made a universally acclaimed graduation film in La Mancha, inspired by Don Quixote, but has been stuck making commercials ever since. It seems like Gilliam is poking fun at artists that sell-out and retire their art for commerce. The type who don’t battle for 25 years to get their passion project off the ground.

The storyline sees Grummett return to La Mancha where he shot his graduation film and discover that the non-professional actor he employed to play Don Quixote has spent the past decade living in a cave believing that he really is Don Quixote. Brazil star Jonathan Pryce is excellent as the zany adventurer who soon becomes convinced that Grummett is his trusty companion Sancho Panza.

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Throughout his career Gilliam has often struggled to keep to the central story, but made up for it with colourful tangents that showed off his directorial talent. That’s not always the case here, especially when it comes to female screen time.

Sometime Bond girl Olga Kurylenko plays a wag to Stellan Skarsgård’s rich boss man and her determination to bed Grummett ends with a knock on the door and a quick dash to the exit. Ten years down the line and Grummett again finds a love interest in Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), who we meet while she is dancing under a waterfall in skimpy clothes.

There is so much goodwill towards Gilliam’s quixotic Quixote project that it’s easy to forgive its problems, of which there are many. Without the budget that Gilliam would once have commanded the set pieces rely on gusto more than CGI, but some of the action sequences cannot be saved no matter how hard the actors try.

Audiences have been spoiled in the past 25 years with advances in technology yet Gilliam has stood still. But his imagination is as fun and wild as ever.

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