Don Juan DeMarco is surely one of the most curious films of the American '90s. It's not great, but by the same token it's not half as bad as many people assume.
It is about a modern young man, played by the charismatic Johnny Depp, who believes he is an old-fashioned Latin lover named Don Juan DeMarco. Sporting an accent, a cape and a mask, he strides around seducing women and offering stirring aphorisms about love and life and soul. When we first meet this Don Juan, he is preparing to kill himself, because the greatest love of his life has just gone wrong.
Enter the psychiatrist Jack (Marlon Brando) who talks him down, and takes on his case. Jack's on the eve of retirement, but he's intrigued by this kid – to say the least.
Many filmgoers complain these days about promotional trailers that give away too much of the film. The trailer of Don Juan DeMarco gives so little away, however, that it made me immediately suspicious. There's Don Juan talking about love, making a few conquests, and there's a shrink listening to him. But what next – what else?
In fact, there's almost nothing else. What this movie rides on for a very long time is this: Don Juan has ten days of psychiatric treatment, in which he narrates the story of his past. Meanwhile, the head of this psychiatric institution keeps pressuring Jack: give him drugs, or commit him, don't just talk to him. Jack delays and delays, and Don Juan's flashback keeps unfolding. Then, there's an ending.
This is a rather whimsical structure for a film, not too plot-driven, and I rather liked it. I think the bluffer's way of criticising it would be to say it has no second act – but since I have yet to grasp what most good films have to do with the famous three-act plot structure, I'll move on.
There are about three key themes that get played upon in an almost musical fashion in this curious and charming movie. There is, of course, the whole theme of love and romance. Two things kept coming into my head all the way through this movie. As Depp charms the clothes off every single woman he encounters, I recalled an episode of the mid '90s television series Earth 2. There's a good-looking, unattached guy in the space colony of Earth 2. In one episode, two women discuss the romantic possibilities. "He's not my type", says the first woman, and the other knowingly replies: "He's every woman's type". Don Juan DeMarco is also about a man who's supposed to be every woman's type.
You could say this is a self-evidently ridiculous proposition and, in fact, the film fools around quite a bit with the ridiculousness of it. But there's something at the heart of this crazy, ridiculous idea which is well expressed by the film. It's the message of that old, sublime Hollywood romance The Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, 1945): physical beauty is something that (as it were) wells up from within, from the spirit and the heart and the soul. When Don Juan DeMarco starts talking about these matters with such intense conviction, you really believe him.
Then there's Brando, who also acts with a lot of quiet feeling here. The film's second main theme is a classic romantic comedy concern: the revitalisation of emotions of rapturous, sexual love among older people. You find this theme in Leo McCarey's classics of the '30s and '40s, through to Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), with stopovers for Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983) and Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989). I get the strong sense that the writer-director of this film, Jeremy Leven (this is the only film he has so far directed in a career as novelist and screenwriter), doesn't know an awful lot about older people. He has Brando say things to Faye Dunaway like: "This is a twelve round gig, and we're only up to round three, baby!" But you get the idea, all the same.
Brando is a really touching figure here. I've been surprised, and a bit shocked, at the way so many reviewers have fixated on the spectacle of Brando's physical size. Reviewers who, in many cases, would never make snide jokes about an actor's skin colour or sexual disposition have declared open day on Brando's bulk. To be fair, the film itself has good-natured jokes about this topic, and it does have a pointed, rather extraordinary moment where Brando gazes upon a photo of himself as a dashing young star.
But where Brando often contrived to keep his no-longer trim body away from the camera's harsh gaze in his movies of the '70s, here he gives you himself as he is, utterly relaxed, without apologies. At the start of this story, we hear Don Juan say in voice-over "I am the world's greatest lover. I have made love to over a thousand women". Near the end, Brando takes over the narration, gives himself a suitably Latin name, and intones: "I am the world's greatest psychiatrist. I have cured over a thousand patients". At this moment of the film you have just got to love him.
The third and principal theme of the film is the Don Quixote theme, the theme of a fantasy that is stronger than reality. Don Juan is one of those classic figures of a certain sentimental, naïve strain in popular movies. He's like James Stewart believing in his imaginary companion of a giant rabbit in Harvey (1950); or the Man of La Mancha himself, fighting the dragons he sees in windmills. When I describe this as naïve and sentimental, I don't mean it as a put-down. This is one of the great childlike subjects of cinema, one that draws many people into a love of cinema when they are children.
Don Juan DeMarco is a film that plays a very artful game with the fantasy-reality question. We vacillate all along: is this Don Juan just a severely delusional suburban kid, or is there actually something true in his tale? There are contrary indications in both directions all along the way. Suffice it to say, the film plays with one of the most basic and beautiful tricks in all cinema. If a movie shows you a person living fully inside the landscape of their own fantasy world, then that world is, for all intents and purposes, real – no questions asked. That's what Jack learns in the course of the film: to stop asking questions, to go with the flow.
I've been painting a rather rosy picture of this movie. There are some weird things in it. It is, of course, outrageously anachronistic, in any reasonable political sense. It's one long advertisement for unsafe sex, and it appears to have never heard of feminism. Those things are part of the film's fantasy, it's very premise, and I was able to go with them.
Other, smaller details stuck in my craw a bit more. There's a strange, needless homophobic thread that runs through it. And – in a film where psychiatrists talk learnedly and passionately about the Oedipus complex – there's some very unresolved stuff about the possibly transgressive sexual activity of Don Juan's mother, who's now become a nun.
But even these unresolved elements served to make the movie interesting to me. In a flash I realise why I'm fond of this movie: it's so much like a Blake Edwards film – and Edwards' movies are often outrageous and anachronistic in exactly the way I'm describing. In fact, it's particularly like an Edwards film called The Man Who Loved Women (1983), which stars Burt Reynolds as a compulsive woman-worshipper and Julie Andrews as his psychiatrist.
Edwards is a little cagier than the makers of Don Juan DeMarco: he knows that all good, modern people believe that the mythical figure of Don Juan is really, under the surface, a misogynist, or a homosexual, or a guy with an unstoppable death-drive – so all of that goes into his movies alongside the Playboy-style sexual fantasies.
Don Juan DeMarco is a simpler, more naïve film. But it has a spirit, and, as they say in the classics, its heart is in the right place.
© Adrian Martin August 1995