The question that imposed itself following the Don Quixote debacle (Lost in La Mancha) was: how would Terry Gilliam artistically manage through this failed dream in his next picture. Indeed, the adventures of the ingenious hidalgo, blending adventure and the absurd, seemed destined to be translated on screen by Gilliam, for whom these two specific themes always constitute the fundamental principles of his inspiration. The announcement of the Brothers Grimm project stimulated twin expectations, namely (1) what would come of the finally official meeting of the maestro with the fairy tale universe of the famous German philologues (considering that Time Bandits already flirted with it: dwarf, giant, ogre, demon, enchanted forest, inaccessible castle, etc.) and (2) would Gilliam, under the guise of a new film, subterraneanly make his Don Quixote?
The Grimm Tales
Firstly, let’s clarify one thing right away. Despite what suggests the title, which openly refers to historical figures, the film is in no way based on true events. In fact, here, Jacob et Wilhelm Grimm are two purely fictional characters (even though they allegorically entertain some correspondences with their homologues) literally integrated into the mythical world that, in truth, they extracted from German folklore to introduce it into “Litterature” during the first quarter of the 19th century.
Paradoxically, the Grimm tales, by definition elliptical masterpieces stripped of all suspense and dramatic accentuation, don’t rely on any defined imagery. In a word, no visual descriptions are provided. Hence, their typical narration takes its charm and its power from the unique manner in which it reorganizes the causality of events (the ineluctability of fate that always rewards the good and punishes evil, for instance). Consequentially, while it carries a whole bestiary of wonders, it contents itself with simply naming them. Here’s an example from The Raven: ” He found that the light came from a house which looked smaller than it really was, from the contrast of its height with that of an immense giant who stood in front of it. “. By mean of a pleonasm establishing a proportional rapport, the giant is introduced, with nothing else added regarding his appearance. Thus it goes with every element of the numerous tales.
On that basis, reading the Grimm’s work requires an enormous imaginary collaboration from the reader. Hence, it isn’t by chance if they have always fascinated filmmakers and painters. Now we have one of the most fertile imaginations in the history of cinema setting out to depict, according to his vision, all these places and creatures without faces or scenery. Time to see the unseen.
Shifting Into High Gear
No! Gilliam didn’t shoot a Don Quixote disguised under the tinsels of a fairy tale. Surprisingly, The Brothers Grimm qualifies in the category of gothic horror thrillers (kind of a cross between the wave of gothic films of the 1950s and the ’90s serial killer movie fad) in the vein of Sleepy Hollow, Le pacte des loups, From Hell, etc. The Brothers Grimm shares many affinities with Tim Burton’s superb yet misunderstood film. Starting from a banal screenplay signed Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Ring Two, The Skeleton Key, Scream 3) not unlike how Burton worked from a mediocre Andrew Kevin Walker script, Gilliam deploys a visual canvas amazingly coherent and inspired. Like the dreamer from Burbank, Gilliam, without neglecting the intrigue, concentrates all his talent in developing the peripheral themes that it involves in its wake and delivers a furious adventure flick, evolving around the grounds of a fairy tale instead of the pure thriller the scenario commanded. Like Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the multiple feats of this film are worth more by themselves than the pursuit of the object of their cause. Unwittingly, Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are propelled through a succession of rollicking rides and ferocious fights, where strange weapons intersect with mysterious characters, rooms of torture, bizarre creatures and spells as cruel as they are unusual.
However, where Gilliam most surprises in comparison with the three movies cited above, in which the notion of cinematographic rhythm was often pushed aside in favor of editing and shot composition (using typically “Gilliamesque” wide-angle lenses) aiming almost exclusively for the aesthetic exposition of the created universe (the characters sometimes fading into it as if they were pure accessories), is in calibrating his mise en scène in function of the heroic or absurd actions of the various protagonists. In other words, the Hitchcockian rigueur Gilliam applied to the extremely complex and dense 12 Monkeys (which explicitly references Vertigo) seems to have permanently inflected his work and conferred to his highly graphic style a new dimension, which some might be inclined to mistake for conformism. To the contrary, the sequence where Lena Headey confronts a monster wolf with a bow constitutes one of the most brilliant moments of bravery of the whole oeuvre of the auteur of Brazil, with dynamism and iconic postures marrying with a grace comparable to the exploits of Legolas in The Lord of the Rings.
On Which Side of the Mirror?
In addition, this latest opus is the occasion for Gilliam to explore one of the eternal paradoxes of creation, i.e. that, in a challenge against rationality, the creator invents a world impossible and fantastic, while being aware that this very creation denounces both the imposture and the unalterable logic of reality. As such, the journey of the Grimm brothers can be interpreted as a metaphor of the cinéaste’s introspection. Indeed, Will and Jacob Grimm are grifters who profit from credulity and popular superstitions to set up hoaxes, then intervene as skilled exorcists. Consequentially, they conceive scenarios, direct actors, arrange special affects and gather crowds to concretize their plots. However, when the representation happens, the diabolical effect elaborated is as convincing for the moviegoer as it is for the fooled villagers. Basically, it operates as if it had been directed by Gilliam in the 21st century with CGI (which is the case) and not by two poor crooks at the end of the 18th. This obvious shift causes a mise en abyme, through which the viewer endlessly attempts to pin down Gilliam’s rapport with his art, be it in Jacob chasing his Chimera like a madman or Will the lucid craftsman who cleverly manipulating the audience. Until the finale, when the brothers are literally subjugated by an enchanted mirror, as if in front of a movie screen (what are camera and projector if not complex amalgams of lenses and mirrors?) they desire to jump through.
Hence, after seven features and a short (Crimson Permanent Assurance), the visionary former Monty Python continues his exploration of History, myth and dreams of mankind, while surveying his own nature as an artist with unshakeable integrity. The mark of the greats.
Review by Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by K.)
*JEAN CARLO WORD OF THE DAY*
Phil”o*logue, n. [Cf. F. philologue.] A humanist specializing in classical scholarship