Terry Gilliam's "Tideland": Alice in "Nightmareland" By Sergi Sánchez

in 53rd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Sergi Sanchez

It is what happens when an artist jumps into the void with no safety net at all, as he blindly believes in his vision of the world: controversy is to be handed to him on a plate. This is what has happened with Tideland by Terry Gilliam, which has provoked massive desertions at a San Sebastian film festival of strong bets, on a selection of films marked by the background and form of conventions, at least in its competitive section. Together with Michael Winterbottom’s film A Cock and a Bull Story, Gilliam’s was the only one that dared to propose a risky and radical image, without any concessions, on a specific matter: madness as the only way of escaping in the face of a hostile environment. All this is endlessly coherent with the director’s body of work, which has been frequently misunderstood by the critics, the industry, and audiences alike.

Gilliam gives with Tideland a definitive turn of the screw to his own obsessions: the unlikely frontier that moves reality and imagination apart, his anti-heroes’ infinite loneliness, contempt over any kind of moral values, and an excessive and hyperbolic claim for magic. With this film he is closing the cycle that he opened with Time Bandits (1981) – a film from which Tideland seems to be a sinister continuation – and which he should have finished with his unfortunately aborted Quixote project.
Tideland is not a film for all audiences. From its very first sequence, in where Jeliza Rose (an extraordinary performance by Jodelle Ferland) prepares a heroin shot for her father (Jeff Bridges) as if she was cooking his favourite dish, the film puts its cards on the table with an incorruptible honesty. We are inside the head of a girl who has not been infected by social rules and, therefore, she is not able to tell the difference between good and evil. This is precisely the reason why her solitary trip to the other side of the mirror, dressed as an Alice who has been forced to watch transgression, deformity and insanity as the main features of a life soaked in fatality, has the looks of an inevitable nightmare. Once and for all an orphan, Jeliza Rose has to invent an alternative reality for surviving in the despairs of a wheat field and a mansion of flaking walls, with the occasional company of a retarded boy and his sister, and a glass-eyed bitch who enjoys taxidermy as a hobby.

From then on, Tideland imposes on us the subjectivity of a poetic and crazy glance where the sordid lives together with the lyrical: the glow-worms of a summer’s night share the space with stuffed corpses, the worrying heads of three Barbie dolls communicate between themselves with the marble-sculpted innocence of an abandoned girl and necrophilia and paedophilia show their noses up into an universe where light and darkness seem to have the same meaning.

The entire film continues in this vein for this timeless Alice ‘s madness, represented by all these visual baroques that are so typical of Gilliam, and in the end they become an antidote to indifference. You must be with him or against him: better said, either you integrate in the world that Tideland suggests or you remain completely outside from it. There is no half-way mark. When reality invades us, when catastrophe attacks us with its night shining, when a train accident returns us to life, perhaps it would be too late to confront it. Like Brazil’s Sam Lowry, Jeliza Rose has crossed the line of danger and has gone the furthest she could in her delusion. It is almost the same as Terry Gilliam has done with Tideland, for his pursuit of a Quixotic dream, come hell or high water. Fighting against windmills is, after all, the same as fighting against the prejudices that trap creative freedom.