‘Don Juan DeMarco’ is about the spirit of romance

Johnny Depp has a way with the ladies in 'Don Juan DeMarco'
Johnny Depp has a way with the ladies in ‘Don Juan DeMarco’

In most American movies leading men are not given emotional lives, they’re given emotional moments. Chiefly, they’re given tasks, even in romantic comedies — reclaim the prize, win the girl, slay the dragon. It’s the Alpha Male as hero. In this regard, the deeply-romantic comedy Don Juan DeMarco is a welcome exception.

The film stars Johnny Depp as the title character, a patient in a mental facility who is either clinically insane, or the direct descendant of the legendary ladies man, Don Juan of Seville. Like his distant relative, DeMarco’s life revolves around romance.

“There are only four questions of value in life,” DeMarco shares early in the film. “What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer for each is the same: only love.” It’s this wonderfully romantic notion that informs every scene in this mid-nineties gem.

If Don Juan DeMarco came and went without much fanfare back in ‘95, there is only one explanation — sometimes the critics get it wrong.

The film opens with the “Spanish nobleman” donning the last of his formal attire; a flowing cape, a black mask, leather gauntlets, etc. Focusing on these details, we could be in the age of gasping heroines and the dashing caballeros that crossed swords in their honor. Instead, the nobleman strides down the street of a modern metropolis. DeMarco’s voiceover explains that he’s the world’s greatest lover, he has made love to over a thousand women, has just turned twenty-one, and has chosen this night to die. His reason? A broken heart, of course. Before going bravely to his death, the dapper youth opts for one final “conquest.”

Striding into a hotel restaurant, DeMarco approaches a woman awaiting her date; she’s been waiting for some time and welcomes the distraction.

“I am Don Juan,” he smiles, sitting at her table.

“And you seduce women?” she chuckles.

“No,” he corrects politely. “I never take advantage of a woman. I give women pleasure, if they desire it. It is, of course, the greatest pleasure they will ever experience.” It’s quite a boast. But it gets her attention. Taking her hand, DeMarco draws an analogy between touching a woman’s fingers and touching her legs — rubbing the joints of the finger is like touching her knees, brushing further up the finger is like touching her thighs. When he kisses her hand at the knuckles, her eyes go sleepy with desire, and the implication is clear.

“Every woman is a mystery to be solved,” DeMarco’s voiceover intones as the two make love in her dimly-lit hotel room. “But a woman hides nothing from a true lover.” With each image, DeMarco’s worship of the female form is clear. It’s that rare scene in American movies — a leading man focused on giving a woman pleasure, rather than using her for his. “I wonder,” DeMarco muses with a thick Castillion accent, “if the Stradivarius violin feels the same rapture as the violinist when he coaxes a single, perfect note from its heart?” With that the woman’s smiling mouth bursts open, matching the passionate cry of a lovely mariachi singer in the restaurant below.

It’s this balance between humor and sensuality that writer-director Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) gets right from first scene to last.

Back in the restaurant, DeMarco bows his goodbye to the woman, exits the restaurant, and tells us in voiceover, “Oh, well. Time to die.”

Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in 'Don Juan DeMarco'
Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in ‘Don Juan DeMarco’

When we see DeMarco again, he’s standing on a catwalk above a giant billboard as police and onlookers gape from the street below. Enter screen legend Marlon Brando (The GodfatherApocalypse Now) as Dr. Mickler, a local psychiatrist. In an attempt to talk the jumper down, Mickler introduces himself to DeMarco as Don Octavio de Flores, a fellow nobleman. Soon after, Mickler has DeMarco admitted to the mental hospital where he works. Despite being two and a half weeks from retirement, Mickler requests the young man’s case, seeing the troubled youth as “a helluva swan song.”

Word of DeMarco’s presence spreads fast, and in less than 24 hours Don Juan is having an affect on half the staff at the clinic. “Officially in his hacienda,” one doctor observes, “there are more nurses on valium than patients.”
When DeMarco is prescribed drugs to combat his delusions, the young man protests.
“Here’s the drill,” Dr. Mickler explains to him. “You’re on what they call a ten day paper, and for those ten days they can do whatever they think is appropriate.”
“I am not deluded,” DeMarco insists. “I am Don Juan! And if you will not medicate me for these ten days, I will prove it to you.”
And if Mickler is unconvinced?
“Then I will take your medication,” DeMarco swears, “and you may commit me for as long as you like.”

With that, the stage is set for DeMarco to draw the doctor in to his tales of love and adventure. It’s a wonderful tale of childhood curiosities, adolescent longings, elicit affairs, duels to the death, and a sexual adventure in the Middle East too priceless to give away here.

While DeMarco’s romantic tales are the obvious “meat” of the movie, the film’s greatest pleasures come from the affect the tales have on the rotund Dr. Mickler. The usually staid doctor begins picking flowers in the hospital parking lot, listening to opera, regarding his wife of thirty-two years differently, and returning more eagerly to work each day.
“This kid is fantastico,” Mickler tells the head administrator.
“You do intend to give him medication?”
“If I give him medication,” Mickler protests, “I’ll never be able to get into this world of his, and it’s a wonderful world!”

What’s difficult to convey here is just how funny Don Juan DeMarco really is without giving away the film’s sweetest pleasures. There is so much humor, one could argue the romantic comedy tips more toward comedy than romance. In truth, the film gives generously to both genres. Best of all, Don Juan DeMarco builds to an ending so sweetly magical and joyously romantic that the entire endeavor is raised to the level of fable in its final passage.

Faye Dunaway (Network) is wonderful here in the role of Mickler’s wife, Marilyn. It’s a slight role that might have gone unnoticed without Dunaway’s considerable charm and beauty. She and Brando share an on-screen chemistry that serves the film well. Unlike Brando’s doctor, Dunaway’s Marilyn takes comfort in their unbroken, daily routines.

“I just feel,” Mickler confesses in bed, “as though we’ve surrendered our lives to the momentum of mediocrity. I mean, what happened to all the celestial fire that used to light our way.”
“Fires are a lot of trouble,” she tells him. “A good, steady, long glow. That does the trick over the long run.”
“No fire,” Mickler objects, “no heat. No heat, no life! That’s the equation.”
“What is going on?” Marilyn asks. “You’ve been acting funny lately.”
“I’ve been treating this kid…he thinks he’s Don Juan.”
“So, who is he, really?”
“I don’t know,” Mickler sighs. “But he’s getting to me.”

As the day of Dr. Mickler’s retirement draws near, facts begin to surface that throw the don’s romantic stories into question. A grandmother in Queens contradicts the young man’s claims, replacing key facts with decidedly unromantic details. It seems certain, if the grandmother is to be believed, that DeMarco is delusional. With less than 24 hours remaining to complete his diagnosis, Mickler’s convinced his charming young patient will have to be committed. Until… we won’t reveal that here.

At its heart, Don Juan DeMarco isn’t about seduction, though there is plenty of that. It isn’t about sex, though there is that too (albeit a PG-13 brand of nookie). At its heart, Don Juan is about the spirit of romance that lives equally in all of us, regardless of age, appearance, or the length of our relationships.

The film’s score stands out among the best of the late, great Michael Kamen (a huge loss to the industry). Equally tender and grand, Kamen’s score draws inspiration from the golden age of Hollywood. By combining a full orchestra with traditional Spanish instrumentation, Kamen set the film’s passionate tone from the very first shot of the film.

Kamen’s score has been given its own isolated track on New Line’s DVD release. Viewing any film with an isolated soundtrack brings a composer’s every choice into high relief. Admittedly, watching the isolated track without the benefit of commentary from the composer is like watching a silent movie that’s inconsistently supported by an orchestra. Without the ability to click from musical cue to musical cue, viewers must sit through long passages of the film in silence, which I can’t imagine myself, or anyone in the general public, doing. Better, I think, to purchase the A&M recording of the soundtrack, which is still widely available. I’ve owned it since the film’s release, and its terrific.

Other elements on the DVD include animated menu screens. In a first for this reviewer, the image driven scene selection menu features a “preview” option. Previews play in the small menu window with full audio, and are very well chosen. The DVD also contains the original stateside trailer, which seems more concerned with selling Depp as a sex object than it is with selling the film as a whole. What’s up with New Line and their trailers (see Torch Song Trilogy review)?! Assuming foreigners are more sensitive, the studio’s international trailer does a much better job of conveying the film’s romantic core.

Also in the extra section are cast bios for Depp, Brando and Dunaway. These bios feature odd facts about the cast, like the fact that Brando lives like a recluse in a Polynesian atoll once owned by that country’s royal family. Bios of Depp and Brando include clips from other movies that both, I’m sure, are trying to forget. While Depp’s appearance in two Nightmare on Elm Street films seem quaintly cheesy today, Brando’s clip from The Island of Doctor Moreau is so embarrassing one wonders if it was chosen by someone who hated him. It comes as no surprise that all three films are New Line productions.

The DVD also features language and subtitle options, a music video featuring a pop version of Kamen’s love theme as performed by Bryan Adams, and the option to view the film in fullscreen or widescreen formats.

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