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What happens to a cake if you open the oven several times while it’s being baked? I becomes deflated. What happens then if you – despite the interruptions – carry on baking it for a very long time? It becomes burnt around the edges. This is more of less what happened to Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which was in the making for 25 years and finally showed last night in the closing ceremony of the 71st Cannes Film Festival. It’s gooey inside, deflated and burnt. Its texture isn’t consistent. But it’s still digestible with some very tasty bits.
The American-born British filmmaker is very much aware of the problems with his films, and he attempts to use them to his benefit. The movie opens with the tongue-in-cheek “And now … after more than 25 years in the making … and unmaking”. There are plenty of elements of self-mockery. In a way, this is a film about the foolishness of the film director. About the incessant will to fight on, and to finish an art piece. Terry Gilliam is Don Quixote. But his attempt at lampooning himself only works partially.
Toby (Adam Driver) is a cocky and greedy American advertising director working in Spain. He comes across old Spanish shoemaker Javier (Jonathan Pryce), who is convinced that he is Don Quixote himself, and that Toby in Sancho Panza. There are plenty of windmills everywhere, ancient and modern, the ferocious giants with humongous arms for Javier/Don Quixote to fight. Against his will, Toby is dragged into Javier’s web of delusions. Parallel to this, Toby starts an affair with the gorgeous Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), his Boss’ (Stellan Skarsgard) wife. The forbidden relationship becomes predictably toxic and dangerous.
This is also a film about cultural shock. Spanish and British sensibility mix like water and oil, making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a very strange and hybrid beast. The humour is entirely British, and I doubt Spanish people will engage with the film thoroughly. Overall, Spanish culture is a difficult nut to crack: Asghar Farhadi did a poor job transposing his Iranian sensibility onto reddish and ardent Spanish soil, in Everybody Knows (the film that open the Cannes Film Festival just 11 days ago). Spanish gold is deceitful. It can easily turn out to be fool’s gold.
The most effective commentary of the film is on ageing. It is very touching to see a delusional Javier convinced that he can fight the evil giants and protect the poor and the vulnerable, despite the clearly visible amount of years on his back. Pryce’s performance is very moving and convincing. By extension, this also applies to Terry Gilliam: he will be an octogenarian is just two years.
The humour in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote isn’t entirely effective. The jokes are a little stale: “my maternal grandmother was Jewish, so I respect all religions” (uttered by Adam Driver, who’s Jewish), “We are in the European Union in the 21st Century” (not sure whether this was intended to be an anti-Brexit statement), people scream “terrorist” as a scarfed lady is revealed to have a beard, and Donald Trump is compared to a toddler. No one at the press screening at Debussy Theatre (with nearly every one of its 1,068 seats occupied) laughed at any of these jokes.
There are other issues. The film is extremely personal, infectious with self-references – which could alienate viewers. Fans of Gilliam will probably recognise those, but younger people, particularly those outside the Anglophone world will probably struggle.
But there’s a far more serious problem, which disappointed me irreparably. The fantastic Spanish actress Rossy de Palma was prominent on the red carpet right next to Mr Gilliam himself. I expected to see this reflected in the movie, giving the whole story a real Spanish flavour. Sadly, she only appears very shortly in the movie. I even suspect it wasn’t her. Looking closely, I think that may have been Adam Driver in drag.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote closed the 71st Cannes Film Festival lats May, when this piece was originally written. A messy treat with some tasty bits. Let’s just hope next time Terry Gilliam doesn’t insist on the deflated and burnt cake, and just starts his recipe afresh. The UK premiere takes place at the BFI London Film Festival taking place between October 10th and 21st, and then at the Cambridge Film Festival October 25th to November 1st.
It’s out in cinemas on Friday, January 31st (2020). On all major VoD platforms in May!