Was it worth it? The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally here, bookended by title cards, the first reminding us the film was “25 years in the making” while the last dedicates it to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, two actors for the same role whom the film outlived. Terry Gilliam’s trials to make some kind of film out of Cervantes’s Don Quixote are the stuff not only of legend but a film of their own, Lost in La Mancha, a behind-the-scenes, “unmaking of” documentary, released back in 2002. No wonder so many reviewers have drawn comparisons between artist and subject. With Gilliam’s mad dream to adapt a thousand page book about a knight-errant, his brave quest to see the story through, his drubbing by the giants and bandits of the film industry, his tilting at personal windmills, there’s only one word to describe the whole project: Kafkaesque.
The trouble is, when a film rides in on this sort of dust cloud our judgement can split two ways. We can approach the film pessimistically, expecting to see the chaos of the production in the final product. Gilliam’s late career has tended towards the grab-bag and make-do, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote doesn't exactly buck that trend. But isn’t that a keyboard critic for you, never appreciating how hard it is to make any film? Or we become charitable or even patronising in our judgement, giving the film top marks for effort, our expectations lowered to such an extent that “I didn’t hate it!” becomes a glowing review. But worse cases of development hell have led to better films.
This wasn’t just “development,” though. An entire film career has built towards The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, thematically as well as logistically, from the medieval parodies Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky to the tall tales of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and even the Grail-inspired The Fisher King. The story of Don Quixote is about the uses and abuses of the imaginary, the comedy and tragedy of the deluded, and Terry Gilliam seemed like the ideal person to retell it. But as the old Adam Curtis saying goes, that was a fantasy.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is not, nor was meant to be, a straight adaptation of Don Quixote. After all, what is its readership? (“There’s a book?” someone asks off-camera near the start.) Who’s still laughing at this send-up of a genre no one’s written for more than four hundred years? Beyond a dim idea of its two main characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, dimmed to the point of their famous silhouettes, the book has faded from cultural memory. This should be liberating.
Encouragingly, the film starts in the present day, with Adam Driver as Toby, a raffish, cynical director making an advert that uses Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as its gimmick. After an uninspiring day on location, Toby finds in a basket of pirate-DVDs a student film of his, also based on Don Quixote. Neatly early, the story has set up a contrast: ads and art. Tracing the village where he shot his student film, Toby re-encounters Javier (Jonathan Pryce), its non-professional lead. Javier’s since gone mad, thinks that Toby is his squire Sancho Panza, and that he himself is the part he played: Don Quixote, knight-errant, sworn to travel the countryside, fighting villains, saving damsels, righting wrongs.
The present-day setting allows Gilliam to contain the book in the world of the film and so emulate one of the book’s most interesting features: its self-awareness. The book contains itself, as well as its rip-off: the people Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet in the Second Part have read the First, as well as the real-life, non-canon sequel. Even if Cervantes’s motivation in writing a Second Part was to reclaim his story from a young pretender, he was still using textual self-awareness centuries before postmodernism ever got the credit. By not emulating this relationship between the book’s two parts, Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, and Michael Winterbottom missed a hat-trick with their third, Quixote-inspired series of gastro buddy comedy The Trip. Just as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are baited by their fans, the readers of Coogan’s restaurant reviews from the first two series should’ve provided the conflict for the third, each new tapas bar treating the grumpy food critic and his comedy plus-one with a mixture of hospitality and hostility. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote isn’t so cosmetic; it’s aware not only of the book but itself: Toby’s pretentious black-and-white student film is called El hombre que mató a Don Quijote. It’s even aware of itself as a film; Toby tries to speak in Spanish with another former cast member, Raul, till he scrapes their subtitles off the screen—a cute cinematic way to show that Toby and Raul are familiar, while at the same time mocking and manifesting the way American cinema makes only a cursory nod to foreign languages.
More specifically, the film is aware of itself as a Terry Gilliam film. Budget constraints might warrant him cannibalising material from his earlier, failed drafts—the special effect of the giants that Toby confronts at the end, the suit of armour Jean Rochefort wore and Jonathan Pryce wears—but there are traces of even earlier material. Javier / Don Quixote mocking Toby for his “Eeeenglish” is a Spanish cousin of John Cleese’s bad-mouthed French “kerniget.” A rival kerniget to the Don is horned like the minotaur in Time Bandits. When Toby’s producer says of him, “He’s not a genius, he’s a fucking child,” you can hear an echo of messiahs and naughty boys. Even turning up at one point, when nobody expects, is the Spanish Inquisition. More than self-indulgence, this has an air of leave-taking, as though Gilliam, at the end of the road, is summing up his own career of fanciful adventures. After all, Don Quixote was nostalgic too, as well as satirical: the books of chivalry that warped a country-squire into a knight-errant were already on their way out by the time Cervantes was writing.
Some overlap was inevitable due to shared subject matter: the Middle Ages, a period Gilliam’s always enjoyed for its steep comic ironies—on the one hand the yearning for the noble and pure, and on the other, the plagues, boils, superstition, bedlam and mud. Little has changed in his sensibility from the old woman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail thwacking a cat against the side of a hut for no reason, to the old woman with a cattle-prod in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, keeping Javier / Don Quixote tucked away in her caravan till you cross her palm with Euros. The original idea had been to follow A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and have Toby tumble back in time. But though time and setting have changed to the present day, again to keep down the budget, Gilliam’s found ways to keep in the Middle Ages: in Toby’s ad, his student film, and later, a fancy-dress party crossed with a live theatre experience at a Russian oligarch’s castle. There’s something faintly sinister about this kind of medieval cosplay, but at least the film portrays the grotesque and silly rich lording it up as much as it does their costumed hirelings and fire poi artists. Still, it’s the Gilliam of his Berlioz opera productions and their love for spectacle that’s dominant, not the Gilliam of Brazil, where the rich carry on eating their lunch through a terrorist attack.
Considering his strengths as a satirist, it’s odd he's built his film around an homage to the book while at the same time downplaying the book’s satirical element. If the book satirised over-reading and chivalric romances, what is the film's target, if anything? An obvious one, at least in the first third, seems to be Gilliam’s own attempts at making the film: Toby’s agent rubs his shoulders and reassures him he’s a genius while his producer screams in his face. Another target might've been advertising: Toby is a former artist become ad-man, and the villains of the film are The Boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who’s desperate to win the contract for a vodka ad campaign, and Alexei (Jordi Mollà), the oligarch who owns the vodka brand. But a target’s not the same as a hit. Toby’s Quixote-themed ad is for “Powergrid”—the corporation behind the wind farms we see dotted around the hillside, but you have to watch carefully to get the joke. Maybe, though, jokes about advertising no longer land in a time when for any artist to be a shill is aspirational.
An homage to/satire of chivalric romances strung together Don Quixote’s misadventures in the book, long before a rival knight showdown and damsel rescue plot coalesced. Without a real homage/satire focus of its own, the film’s strung together by the book, or at least the classic abridged version Javier brandishes at Toby: key episodes building towards the damsel rescue and climaxing in the same place—the duke’s castle where the knight and his squire are tormented by cruel pranks. None of these episodes—multiple tilts at windmills, wineskins confused for demons, innocents confused for villains or sheep—are adapted inventively or enchantingly enough to justify a “Best of Don Quixote” approach. And since that is the approach, the film has to rely on its Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and getting right their near-archetypal comedy relationship.
Don Quixote’s influence has been world-historical—Milan Kundera claims the book founded the Modern era. As a pioneer of dovetailing storylines, Cervantes “invented” the novel from the picaresque that came before it. Spanish literature lives under his shadow as much as English literature does under Shakespeare, while in Latin America, Don Quixote’s mishmash of enchantment and disenchantment has trickled down into magical realism (or what Terry Pratchett called “a polite way of saying you write fantasy”). Beyond Spanish, the DNA of the Don can be found in the violent escapades of Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, and from there to Catch-22. You might even see Home Alone’s two burglars as a role-reversed Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, gaunt lanky Marv with his delusions of legendary criminality—“We’re the Wet Bandits!”—and Harry the podgy leader, always losing his temper and thrashing his sidekick. And perhaps from them to Pinky and the Brain? (“Same thing we do every night, Sancho. Try to rescue Dulcinea!”) What influence the book has, still, lies in its two main characters, who’ve far outridden their story.
The general conception of the two is noble, airy, mad Don Quixote versus greedy, earthy, sane Sancho Panza. (Although the book was never as binary; the Don has his moments of wisdom and clarity, Sancho his moments of delusion.) The film's Don Quixote is as deluded as the original knight, but he’s also as brave. Like Alonso Quijada before him, Javier doesn’t think he’s a knight, he becomes a knight—he lives and acts by knightly virtues. It’s everyone else that mistakes him otherwise, like the cops who think he’s just a costumed character gone astray from a Holy Week procession, less knight-errant than errant knight, as the old joke goes. Toby meanwhile has Sancho Panza’s relative cynicism and selfishness, though a flat stomach in place of a fat one. The film’s real innovation, though, is that the squire is responsible for his master—but in a particular way.
While working as a cobbler, Javier is spotted by film student Toby, who casts him as the Don. A decade later, Toby’s still yelling at Javier, “I found you!” like a jealous manager, and he keeps having to remind Javier, with a mixture of pride and anger, he’s speaking dialogue that he, Toby, once wrote. But the creation is mutual: Toby is only Sancho Panza because Javier insists he is when they meet again. As Javier rewatches Sancho in Toby’s student film, we see Toby emerge through the curtain on which the character’s image is being projected. Careful viewers will see this anyway …
When does a desire not to spoon-feed your audience turn into nil-by-mouth? All the information is there in the film for it to count as complex, or at least comprehensive, but it’s shot too lightly, the scenes composed too undramatically for the information to stand out, the whole film under-salted. Take the reason Javier thinks he’s Don Quixote. Alonso Quijada went mad from reading too many books of chivalry, but Javier goes mad from acting in one student film. Much later, we learn that the drive behind Javier’s madness is a fear of death. His fellow villagers stage a jousting contest in the hope he’ll quietly return home as forfeit for his defeat. Instead, his delusion wobbles; he recognises his jousting opponent as his friend Raul, then flashes back to a memory and a scene from the student film, flashes back in fact to the original Don Quixote’s moment of self-doubt: being carried if not paraded in an ox-cart, back to a home where he’ll have nothing to do but die. When Javier does die, he calls himself “a forgotten old man,” but the film never portrayed such a predicament. It forgot the old man as well.
Since the book was about an old man driven to delusion by chivalric romances, and since Terry Gilliam has faced his own delusions over the past twenty-five years, it was a pleasing progression for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to feature a man driven to delusion by the film about the book (a Russian doll of delusions). But then why didn’t Gilliam make Javier his protagonist? More compelling, and a better match for the real-life, behind-the-scenes troubles, would have been a story about a Method actor playing Don Quixote in failed version after failed version of the film, immersed in a character so often and so deeply he can’t get back out. By stumping for Toby instead, Gilliam’s pegged the emotional weight of the film on Toby’s journey, the not hugely exciting one of a man who goes from selfish cynic to selfless hero. Or at least it’s not exciting till you appreciate the wider point of the film and its take on the two main characters: how Sancho Panza becomes Don Quixote, and what together they mean.
Toby begins as a kind of ego ideal of film directors, driving to set on a motorbike, wearing silly scarves, bedding The Boss’s wife, Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko). When Toby and Jacqui are nearly caught in bed, he leaves her to face her husband with a cry of “Every man for himself.” Other lines he cries: of his fate at the jousting match: “What about me?” Of blood: “Thank God it’s not mine.” When he discovers a satchel of gold coins, he turns into Daffy Duck: “Mine! All mine!”—this said as he runs towards an area marked “Danger—Mine” to cap off the Looney Tunes humour.
But halfway through the story—and significantly after reconnecting with another person from his film past, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro)—Toby finds Javier / Don Quixote whipping himself to prove his devotion to his own romantic ideal, Dulcinea. Toby makes him stop and helps him wash his wounds. At the costume-party, Angelica’s Russian oligarch boyfriend/client tells her to eat a blini off his boot (subtle!). Toby offers to put himself in her place. Made to believe she’s in worse peril during the climax, Toby fights his way past Jacqui, who tries to seduce him while saying back his ethos of “Every man for himself!” Her irony is the mark of his progress, however, from knave to knight.
Moments later, though, Toby sees an enemy who’s not really there: instead of giants for windmills, he mistakes the Don for his Boss. Poised to defend himself from Jacqui’s jealous husband, he ends up pushing Javier / Don Quixote out of the window. Disappointing that the promise of the film’s title ends with this not particularly shocking accident, even if it’s thematically on point. But Toby is shocked; he’s maddened by guilt and grief—we cut from his tears to a bonfire, steaming and smoking in the rain. As if the delusion burns off at the point of death, Don Quixote becomes Javier again, though he’s still quoting Toby, in this case his original sales pitch to star in the student film: “An interesting face, the kind they use to sell insurance.” He then tells Toby he always knew he was “more than Sancho,” a line with two readings, that he knew Sancho was really Toby but had collaborated with his own delusion, and that he knew Toby was more than a dim-witted and selfish knave. With this blessing, Toby assumes the mantle and madness of Don Quixote, as if the character was infectious, jumping from person to person over the ages like a superhero guise.
Javier stopped dreaming he was Don Quixote the moment he accepted death. He predicted this, muttering Toby’s dialogue while imprisoned in the old woman’s caravan: “I cannot die, unless perhaps I could rid myself of my dreams.” Gilliam has made the source of Quixote’s madness his fear of death so he could show us the distractions from it or compensations for it: dreams, delusions, all the other types of fantasy in the film, including filmmaking itself and more generally art.
The film’s take on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s relationship might have appeared to be the binary one of the innocent versus the cynic, the fanciful versus the mundane, but taken together they’re the two sides of the artist. Don Quixote is the patron saint not of knights so much as artists in their obsessed, deluded form. Because an artist “has to be crazy,” or so Toby tells Angelica. After he’s sold out and become an advertiser, he tells his agent that he doesn’t dream; because Sancho Panza is also the artist: worldly, greedy, selfish. To drive home this point, when Toby doesn’t synthesise the two sides but instead becomes Don Quixote in Javier’s place, he is no longer any sort of artist. He can’t recognise his own film set, his artifice. He ends the film thinking his windmill special effects are giants.
Javier / Don Quixote and Toby / Sancho Panza are combined in the figure of the artist because artists smudge the line between reality and fantasy. Although Gilliam has made films like Time Bandits where the fantasy within young Kevin’s story is “real” (if we don’t believe it, we can go blow up like Kevin’s parents) mostly he’s interested in the uses of fantasy: the ever-more desperate and in places literal flights of fancy Sam goes on in Brazil, the make-believe for the sake of religious persuasion in Monty Python and the Life of Brian.
Guy Davenport in his introduction to Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote warned about the way the violent and bawdy book is domesticated into “a genteel and whimsical myth about appearance and reality.” With Toby’s call to adventure sending him to the village of Los Sueños—“The dreams”—the film is at first whimsical enough. But Jacqui warns Toby—and through him Terry—“not to get sentimental,” and so Toby’s first real dream is about the Spanish Inquisition. They raid what is, in waking reality, the Muslim refugee camp where he’s hiding from cops, history itself being that nightmare from which we can’t seem to awake. Thankfully neither does the film make too much of the artist as dream-weaver. (One theory about Inception is that the dream-team are a film crew, Leo the director, Ellen Page the screenwriter, Michael Caine as the gaffer or something.) Instead, dreams in the film are yet another example of confusion, conflation—a dream itself being a visual pun.
As with the fate of poor Archie Buttle in Brazil, tortured to death because a fly caused a typo, many of the confusions are linguistic: Toby describes the squalid refugee camp as “rustic” to a woman with a bicycle, and she tells him it can't be, she just oiled it—that sort of thing. And as with Brazil, the plot kicks off with a case of mistaken identity. Fleeing Jacqui’s bedroom, Toby is mistaken for the “Gypsy” (the only designation the character is given in the film’s credits) who sold him the DVD of his student film, the same man who’ll help spring him from the cops and into the hands of Don Quixote—the Don whose death will be another case of mistaken identity. Fantasy is helpful but can also be fatal.
And even when not fatal, damaging in unpredictable and long-lasting ways. The old woman exploits Javier’s delusion that he’s Don Quixote by keeping him chained up as a sideshow (advertised as the “Real” Don Quixote, no less). She shows him the film in which he starred as a sort of hypnotising spell: to enchant is to enchain. Enchanters like the old woman with her “magic” cattle-prod have always been Don Quixote’s archenemies. But his squire, Toby the ad-man, is one such enchanter. As Alan Moore said, what could be more like a magic spell than the way a brand logo or a jingle on TV makes millions of people have the same inane thoughts at the same time. Avoiding, though, any kitsch idealisation that an ad / art contrast might encourage, the latter is shown as more damaging than the former, nor are they so distinct. Javier took the magical part of filmmaking too seriously— “See what a dangerous child you’ve created!” Raul scolds Toby. Raul’s daughter Angelica took the worldly part too seriously, after Toby gave her the dream she was going to be a famous movie star. “I fucked up things for you, didn’t I?” Toby says on learning her dream proved to be a delusion. His road to Quixotehood starts when he decides to right these wrongs, to make up for the people he enchanted.
But making up for it can come out of further enchantment and not disenchantment (the same way Gilliam’s film is meant to make up for the years of drama behind it). Javier’s villagers collaborate with his delusion in the jousting match to try to bring him home. Angelica collaborates with it too, but more ambiguously during a prank at the castle party. Acting as a Moorish woman, “cursed” with a beard by an enchanter, she persuades Javier to ride a horse to the moon, or so he thinks, in order to break the spell. Just as she can lose her beard, he might lose his barber’s basin of a helmet, go back from knight to cobbler … King Lear, a contemporary of Don Quixote, was persuaded to leap off a cliff, or so he thought, to bring him back from despair and to real life. But Javier’s fall off his spacefaring horse won’t break the spell. Angelica’s Muslim role-play doesn’t transcend the wider cruelty of the prank.
One of the trickier fantasies in the film is paranoia, the feared ones being Muslims and/or refugees, an update to the Moors and Moriscos heavily present in the book. This is mostly played for laughs against the afraid: Angelica and her fellow actors with beards under their veils are confused by a terrified party guest for suicide bombers. But in the book, the women weren’t pretending to be Moors but Spanish duennas. Making the bearded women Muslims was a conscious alteration. Elsewhere, the film’s more even-handed. Reading a newspaper story in his car about Muslim terrorists decapitating hostages, a cop declares, “They’re still living in the Middle Ages,” which sets up the gag of him almost crashing into a Holy Week procession where the Catholics are dressed like in the Middle Ages. The fear is mutual too, leading to mutual deceptions and confusions. The undocumented Muslim refugees who shelter Toby and Javier pretend to be Christians, over-compensating with their language so much—in quick succession their leader uses the words “Good Samaritans,” “martyrs,” “pilgrims,” “host” but ends (another linguistic mistake) on “hostages”—that they trigger Toby’s own paranoid fantasies about decapitating terrorists. But the Muslims aren’t just passive victims of stereotyping, they also get to play the fool: caught praying by Toby, the refugee leader tries to make out he was cleaning his floor mat.
In Toby’s nightmare the Spanish Inquisition raid the camp, transformed into a hideout for Moriscos, or Moorish Christian converts, reminding the audience of the centuries-old hostility, and that Islamophobia has always been racialised. (One inquisitor yells, “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear,” like every grubby authoritarian through the ages.) Toby wakes from this to what he believes is the sound of Javier / Don Quixote in peril. But the yelling terrorists are really laughing refugees: audience of Javier, who’s entertaining the camp with a story that mirrors Toby’s nightmare. (Either the storytelling must’ve bled into Toby’s sleep or reality is starting to waver.) Then comes a real raid: by the Spanish immigration police.
The form of this joke is the disenchantment of paranoid fear: to go from what you were worried someone was, to realising what they are, from persecutors to persecuted. This means having to depict the paranoid fantasy first. And where Toby is paranoid, Javier / Don Quixote is nothing but respectful. In one of his delusions, he thinks he sees a flock of Islamic scholars and chides Toby for pointing out that they’re sheep: “Why speak badly of them?” He doesn’t think the sheep are like Islamic scholars, or that Islamic scholars are like sheep, he doesn’t see sheep at all. He’s not making the comparison, though through his noble, open-hearted nature the film might be inviting one.
This is a shade better at least than the film's Boomerish depiction of Russians. Ringing the Satire Bell, The Boss says of Alexei, who plans to deck out his recently acquired castle in purple, “Think pure id, think toddler on a sugar rush, think fucking Trump.” Meanwhile, our hero Toby refers to Alexei not just as a pig but a Russian pig. But some of the contempt must be self-contempt; we and Toby can see his former self in the objectifying, monetising Alexei, the evil double he has to defeat.
Alexei is the duke from the book who makes a spectacle out of Don Quixote, laughs at him while playing along with his delusions. But as much as madness, Quixote’s delusion is his obsession; Toby's agent warned, “We become what we hold on to.” Once Javier’s holding on to Don Quixote he won't let go. Toby tries to bust him out of Alexei's castle, but Javier tells him he likes it here. He’d also warned Toby: “We must believe in ourselves. Whatever the cost!” —like some kind of fanatic’s re-rendering of a Disney song (and a fitting motto for Gilliam’s career). An obsessed artist might confuse fantasy and reality: confuse their relative importance or sometimes treat their fictional characters as real. But not being able to separate fantasy and reality is madness. The artist and audience need to know it’s made up for art to work.
Toby once was able to separate the two, but now he’s getting more and more confused. He dreams of Angelica kissing him but wakes to a sheep licking his face; “reality” then references this dream, with a sheep-masked reveller at the costume party accosting him for a second kiss. When Javier’s singing appears to summon a real knight for the joust, the Knight of Mirrors, Toby watches amazed as though he’s travelled back in time after all. The knight’s mirror-armour casts firefly reflections onto Toby, coins of light, gold coins like the ones in his satchel. Those coins turn to lead after he, in reality, is spurned by Angelica. His agent consoles him that nothing is real. Bewildered Toby: “Something has to be!” The cost of a knave becoming a knight will be the cynic becoming the innocent.
The core of Don Quixote’s delusion, and part of the knight-errant package, is his lady-love, Dulcinea, the guiding light of all his adventures. In Toby’s words, Dulcinea is his ideal. But the Dulcinea of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is Angelica, and she’s not Javier’s but Toby’s fantasy woman. She’s also his motivation to become more noble, something that comes in the guardedly old-fashioned form of a damsel-rescue.
The best we can say of Angelica is that the filmmakers aren’t unaware of what they’re doing. For one, she’s literally portrayed as the Madonna/Whore cliché. The first time we see her is in the student film as an effigy of the Virgin Mary, while in the next scene, her own father refers to her as a “whore.” She followed her dreams of movie stardom into becoming an escort, as she tells Toby, at which point the music does a sad-face. We’re not so far here from It’s a Wonderful Life, where the crescendo of degradation George Bailey sees in alternate-timeline Pottersville, with its saucy nightclubs and rude bartenders, is his wife having turned into … an unmarried librarian.
Angelica is fifteen the first time we see her, back when Toby was in his graduating year at film school (perhaps twenty-one?). Their relationship at first is a one-way-ish crush, but a decade later her former innocence is still queasily emphasised, via flashbacks to her braces-smile and shots of her childhood bed strewn with teddy bears. Whereas the first time we see Toby, it’s with collar-pulling scenes of him manhandling female runners whose names he can’t remember. But Toby has to start off as a boor if he’s to become a knight by the film’s end. And we quickly see the cost of his boorishness when Jacqui turns up in a car with her jealous husband the next morning with sunglasses and a bruised neck. Toby sees similar bruises on Angelica later: the downside of being the kept woman of Alexei. But where he once looked the other way, now he’ll try to help.
Refreshingly, Angelica at first refuses his help, and his pity: she’s the damsel who’s made her peace with distress. When Toby takes on / away her responsibility and says he “fucked up” things for her, she tells him not to flatter himself. She’s aware of the consequences of her association with Alexei, but sees it as the price for the lifestyle she wants, the lifestyle Toby taught her to aspire to. But following her refusal Toby switches from heroism to contempt, calling her a whore and throwing his gold coins at her, in a scene that feels less operatic as intended and more like spurned jemble behaviour in fantasy garb.
That the damsel-rescue is a male fantasy is openly admitted to by the film. Angelica dresses up as a veiled Muslim woman, the niqabi being that other damsel in distress in the Western imagination. And although Toby dreams of Angelica kissing him while winsomely asking whether he’ll rescue her, this is the same dream that cuts to a sheep licking his face. But while the dream-fantasy is undercut tonally, it’s not done so structurally. Toby still rides through the castle on a horse to rescue Angelica, and would have succeeded if he’d not also tried to rescue Javier / Don Quixote.
Having failed to rescue both, Toby goes mad and becomes the Don, followed out of the castle by Angelica, since dumped by Alexei. She pretends to be Sancho Panza to rescue Toby after he’s hurt when tilting at his own windmills. But her rescue is based on her sex: this time she kisses him for real. A revived Toby / Don Quixote tells her with a smirk, “This is an exciting new development to our relationship.” Dulcinea has fused / been confused with Sancho Panza.
While Angelica plays an ambiguous role in collaborating with Javier / Don Quixote’s delusion, the wider entertainment in which it takes place is the old man displayed at the castle as a comedy crazy for rich people’s pleasure (as he is for the audience and the readership before it). Fantasy here is cruel: at best a sad delusion of the weak and old, and at worst a way to laugh at them. But why the admittedly cruel but in practice silly and stagey “trip to the moon” prank would entertain an eeeevil oligarch is anyone’s guess. The book is much crueller: the duke and duchess tell Don Quixote he must give Sancho Panza hundreds of lashes to disenchant his Dulcinea, played by a boy in drag. And though the knight and his squire are allowed to leave the castle, it’s only so they can be trapped again, a twist that must’ve influenced Marquis de Sade with his own torture castles that can never be escaped from.
The film transfers the sadistic exploitation of love from the Don’s to Sancho’s, and in doing so loses the cruelty. Toby and Angelica can’t have known each other for more than a few weeks across ten years. Don Quixote spent a thousand pages mooning over his Dulcinea till he was tricked into believing he might finally get to rescue her. At the costume party, Toby’s tricked into believing Angelica’s going to be burnt on the bonfire; Alexei and his cronies are in on the joke, but confusingly, so is Angelica, who acts like she knew she was sitting on a special effect.
Gilliam, the man who gave us a secretary typing up every scream from a tortured prisoner, skimps on the cruel comedy throughout. In its place, such jokes as Toby’s agent announcing the entrance of beautiful Jacqui with the words “Will you noli me tangere,” which doesn’t even make sense to groan at. Every few chapters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza got into fights, with each other or with people they met on the road, at one point even vomiting on each other for the reader’s amusement. They’re closer in spirit to Eddie and Ritchie in the TV show Bottom than the pantomime stuff the film concedes to put Toby and Javier through. And though the film is less cruel, it also misses the kindness in the book. In one pitiful chapter, Don Quixote, about to lose his insanity, feels ashamed of his grubby travelling clothes and tries to mend them, distracting himself from encroaching reality by making a fetish of a torn pair of tights. In the film, he’s upset he’s torn the posh costume he was given to wear an hour before.
Maybe, though, in a culture where Happy Tree Friends now seems quaint, this alteration is for the best. Maggie Nelson in The Art of Cruelty accepts that art is art, a story is a story and not real, and hence we might enjoy cruel things in fiction we might not in life; but she points out that nonetheless art and artists mean to have an emotional effect on you. To cause such an effect must carry some responsibility. Even if the cause itself was fictional, the resulting emotions are real. Ask Don Quixote, or any victim of a cruel prank. And this isn’t delusional, but part of the point of art.
[I]t would seem the author’s intention was to create a chimera or a monster rather than a well-proportioned figure. In addition to all this, they are crude in style, unconvincing in the exploits they relate, lascivious in the love affairs that they portray, uncouth in their efforts at courtliness, prolix in their descriptions of battles, absurd in their dialogue, nonsensical in their accounts of journeyings, and, finally, destitute of anything that resembles art.
—Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Samuel Putnam
Alexei, Jacqui, The Boss,and their guests laugh at the artist Don Quixote, obsessed to the point of madness, and laugh at the artist Sancho Panza, an ambitious, self-centred fool. Gilliam’s film might not take itself too seriously, but underneath, he’s earnest: he wants us to side with his deluded artist-madmen heroes and not with those who laugh at them.
If only the film itself had been what won us over. Don Quixote killed off the chivalric romance form for good and began a whole other form in the European novel, even if Cervantes hadn’t meant to. How might Gilliam have emulated Cervantes’s innovation, self-awareness, and comic spirit, while meeting the huge expectations for the film and working within the smaller budget he has to these days? One solution: set the film in the present day still, but also in a world where his long-awaited, historically faithful Quixote has been released: to acclaim and success. So successful the studio are forcing a cash-in sequel; they send the greedy actor who played Sancho to convince his co-star to take up the reins. But having been mobbed by fans who always treat him as Don Quixote, the actor’s gone mad and become the part he played. As they journey to set, “Sancho” must decide whether to exploit Quixote’s madness by fooling him into appearing in a film he thinks is reality, or to disenchant his tormented friend. And what if he could do both by doing both?
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s subject matter is fantasy and art, and so should’ve exemplified both, the kind of fantastic art Gilliam is capable of: the fatal plotting of Twelve Monkeys; a false messiah who drops into an alien spaceship; rush-hour at Grand Central Station transforming into a ballroom dance. But slog away at any artwork for long enough and you start to believe the productivity cliché, that done is better than perfect. At least Gilliam has got it done, has set a particular demon to rest: he’s killed Don Quixote. Now for another delusion.