Movie Report: Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Book coverI was vaguely aware of this film when it came out. I was just about a year out of college, and either my friend Mike mentioned it, or perhaps the premise reminded me of Mike. But I did not see it in the cinema, nor had I seen it any time before now.

Johnny Depp, fairly fresh from 21 Jump Street, plays Don Juan DeMarco, a man who dresses in black and wears a mask like Zorro. He is a great seducer, but he has decided to end his life. So after one last conquest, he scales a billboard and plans to end it all in a duel with his greatest adversary. However, the responding police send up a psychiatrist played by Marlon Brando who plays along with Don Juan to get him into the bucket of a bucket truck and from thence to a mental hospital on a ten-day hold for evaluation.

Dr. Mickler, Brando’s psychiatrist, goes against the wishes of his colleagues and does not drug DeMarco but instead listens to his fanciful story of his life. The child of an American and a Mexican property owner who falls in love with his tutor but the affair leads to his father’s death in a duel and DeMarco’s running away and his mother’s entering a convent. He then has a variety of adventures told in flashback, including being in the harem of a shiek and then meeting a beautiful woman on a beach after a shipwreck who would go on, after their parting, a centerfold.

The authorities locate his grandmother, who tells a different story. The father died in an automobile accident, which might have been a suicide based on his wife’s affairs, and the mother did enter a convent. The fanciful stories that DeMarco tells have enough touchpoints with the grandmother’s story to introduce some ambiguity as to whether his stories, although fantastic, have some truth to them, or if he is really deluded.

Meanwhile, Mickler is learning from the stories to alter his outlook on life to be more romantic and legendary even in the everyday. This helps him to rekindle his marriage with his wife, played by Faye Dunaway.

So I liked the film more than I expected. Thematically, it questions our every day epistemology and outlook. How do the stories we make of our everyday life make our lives better? How did I save the planet today by defeating the invading mildew in my bathrooms? I guess the movie did not cover the last case explicitly, but it’s implied.

I’m surprised that this film is not more fondly remembered today. Perhaps its fanciful nature limits its Seriousness, so it is not thought of as meaningful as, say, Girl, Interrupted. Which I am not inclined to watch twenty-five years after its release because it was so serious and probably more a product of its time.

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