Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The festival is over, and the best films from Cannes embody what truly matters: the ability to move backward and forward, projecting a sense of the moment, live bulletins of a country’s pulse and state of mind. With his scalding and magisterial new work, Winter Sleep, the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan walked off with the Palme d’Or.

In his acceptance speech, Ceylan dedicated the film to the young people of Turkey who have lost their lives in the last year protesting the country’s unnerving political repression and withholding of essential freedom. Because of its three-hour and 16-minute running time, the film had just one official screening, on Friday, May 16th. At the screening, Ceylan and the rest of his artistic delegation wore black protest bands.

Winter Sleep is the most political of the director’s six features. The movie’s social grievances and class conflicts sharply distill the conflict between the professional, bourgeois and modernist state and the encroaching fundamentalist strain. As outsiders, it’s hard not to sense a particular cultural schizophrenia. (My friend visited Istanbul last year after Cannes, and he was immediately struck by the disparate attitudes of the women. The young and educated wore provocative, sexually alluring Western dress, in strong contrast to other women he saw that were fully covered.)

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Ceylan developed the story and script in close, even contentious, collaboration with his very gifted wife, Ebru (the two played opposite each other in his earlier film, Climates). From its visual precision to the emotional believability of the characters and their sad, beautiful and emphatic faces, I was knocked out by his original and astonishing visual syntax. The movie needs time to breathe and take hold.

Like all of the director’s movies, Winter Sleep is suffused with a painterly beauty and Ceylan has a fluent, innate ability to ground his protagonists against telling and evocative landscapes. He has a great feel for tableau imagery, like the tactile and immersive opening images of mist hovering over the rocky steppes of the spectacular mountain landscapes of Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia.

The director dedicated the work to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire. The movie’s protagonist, Aydin (played by the astounding Haluk Bilginer), combines characteristics of Lear, Prospero and Prince Hal. The name of the family hotel he runs is significantly named Othello. From his father, he inherited wealth and vast tracts of land. He appears rational and benevolent, an aesthete who earned renown as a film actor and now writes newspaper columns and is gathering material for his magnum opus, a cultural history of Turkish theater.

Winter Sleep is divided into three dominant movements. The first part underlines the extent of Aydin’s fiefdom, his subjects, and how cold-blooded and mercurial he is in his business dealings as he directs his wrath against a family of impoverished tenants unable to pay rent. (His top lieutenant, or enforcer, actually metes out the punishment).

A young boy, furious at the embarrassment and shame to which his family is subjected, responds with his own violent action. The consequences lay bare an existential dilemma that open the possibility of Aydin as either an imperial fool (“more sinned against than sinning”) or flagrant hypocrite.

As Ceylan’s superb previous work Once Upon a Time in Anatolia used genre material to meditate on the most serious moral and existential concerns, the new work counters expectation in a more radical and astounding way, through its form and construction. The film’s long middle, comprising about half the running time, reframes the action, subtly altering subjectivity, space and time.

The disruption is marked by the most transporting single moment I saw at Cannes, a radical cut as the young boy who committed the act of vandalism collapses in trying to make his contrition toward Aydin to a sudden and enthralling action of man and nature as Aydin’s workers try valiantly to corral a wild horse.

The temporal cut foreshadows the severe shift in mood and tone, as the focus of the films turns toward Aydin’s acrimonious and difficult relationships with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag) who is reeling from a divorce, and his much younger wife, Nihal (the astoundingly beautiful Melisa Sozen), openly rebelling against her husband’s controlling nature.

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Instantly the focus of landscapes, rock formations and weather is given a wholly different range of expression in a series of private, withering and extended scenes, lasting up to 20 minutes and filled with the kind of baroque, caustic and corrosive language more prevalent in the works of Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes.

The trademark of those two great artists, the poisoned couple, takes center stage—a form of annihilation, as the pain, regret and disgust are made explicit in the tense body inflections and hurtful exchanges. The sister charges that Aydin never lives up to the privileges he was bestowed. The wife is far more cutting and damning, finding him unbearable.

Ceylan is more direct and expansive, concerned with how language distorts and conceals, the riffs and counterarguments yielding a sustained and musical flow, despite the bitterness and rancor. It’s a different kind of poetry, of faces and the architecture of bodies as the camera remains steadfast and locked in. Regardless, the imagery beguiles, like an extraordinary moment with Nihal’s face illuminated from the flare of a fire, her very presence more radiant and stunning.

Like the greatest filmmakers, Ceylan is both elliptical and lapidary. The work is beautifully constructed, but like Chekhov, appearances and illusions invite the viewer to cast about and glean from looks and exchanges deeper significance. Ceylan’s cryptic though elastic style casually hooks you.

What makes the journey extraordinary is not finding answers but submitting to the ride.

Grading the Cannes Competition

By Patrick Z. McGavin

This year’s Cannes Film festival, the 19th I’ve covered and written about, showcased a strong competition. The trajectory was like a bottle rocket, blasting off with superb work by Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu), Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep), flattening out with an uneven stretch before picking up and soaring with strong new works by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) and French master Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria).

Curatorially, the main competition was tighter than normal (with just 18 films). Only seven of those are given what I consider mixed or negative grades. Yet, it always takes time to really fully assess the impact, range and originality of each competition. Last year’s competition, for instance, now that enough time has passed, seems infinitely stronger than it did on initial responses.

What follows are my personal rankings, with corresponding grades, of the 18 films in the competition.

1. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey): A+

2. Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland): A

3. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France): A

4. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia): A-

5. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK): A-

6. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali): A-

7. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada): A-

8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium): B+

9. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, USA): B

10. The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy): B

11. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada): B

12. Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello, France): B-

13. Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, Argentina): B-

14. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, USA): C+

15. Jimmy’s Hall (Ken Loach, UK): C

16. The Captive (Atom Egoyan, Canda): C-

17. Still the Water (Naomi Kawase, Japan): C-

18. The Search (Michel Hazanavicius, France): D

Cannes Awards

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The 67th edition of the festival ended today on a superlative note. On Saturday night, the professional jury awarded the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Winter Sleep, the extraordinary new work by Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The director’s sixth feature marks the ideal crystallization of his style, sharply yoking physical wonder and emotional acuity. The director Jane Campion, a Palme laureate in 1993 for The Piano, admitted going in, she felt a bit daunted by the prospect of the movie’s three-hour and 16-minute running time. “But I sat down, and the film had such a beautiful rhythm and it took me in,” she said. “I could have stayed there for another couple of hours.”

Ceylan had its admirers, though indicative of the breadth of the programming, Cannes denied any shot at consensus this year. We all have our prejudices and feel protective about specific directors and films. Film culture has mutated pretty radically in the last three decades, but one prevalent track has focused on foreign auteurs such as  Krzysztof Kieslowski and Abbas Kiarostami, followed by Bela Tarr, who assumed, whether deliberately or not, the mantle of the serious film artist, the heir of Bergman, Antonioni, Godard and Fassbinder.

Ceylan is now that man. His recent films are long though voluptuous and beautifully made. With Ceylan, the rhythms are sensuous and achieve a serpentine hold in violating narrative expectation to achieve something far more mysterious, knotty and plangent. Part of what makes the new work so exciting and involving is how it scuttles expectation, invoking the previous films as he expands his ideas and storytelling into different directions.

The Grand Prix, effectively the runner-up award, went to Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher for her second narrative feature, The Wonders, about a family of beekeepers.  It’s a lyrical and nicely observed work that draws extensively on her own life. (She even cast her own sister in the part of the family matriarch.) Rohrwacher’s movie was one of just two films in the 18-film competition directed by a woman; the other was Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water. The movie is tough and keen-eyed, alert to the confusion and stirrings of the family’s older daughter. It is never sentimental, and the camerawork is clean, patient and often hypnotically precise.

The festival had a lot of echoing movements and concerns. So it happened that films by the oldest and youngest directors in the competition shared the Jury Prize. The great Jean-Luc Godard, at 83 and offering his first film in four years, detonated the placid calm with his remarkable cine-collage, Adieu au language. It’s another of his sorrowful and contemplative looks at the end—of cinema, of the 20th century—only this time shot in 3D, with some startling and poetic imagery, layered through a nimbus of quotations, aphorisms and classical music (most prominently Beethoven’s 7th Symphony). It utilizes the depth of field in radical ways, opening up all manner of looking, hearing and watching.

Godard’s opposite, the rakish and impossibly ambitious young Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan (this is his third film in two years) split critical reaction with Mommy, the alternately feverish and grueling story of the hyper-compacted family dynamics involving a middle-aged widow (Anne Dorval, excellent) and her ADHD 15-year-old son (Antoine Olivier-Pilon). Suzanne Clement is the next door neighbor caught between the two.

Dolan invented his own aspect ratio, a highly vertical band, a negative ratio of approximately .67-1, that simultaneously centers the action and destabilizes the frame. I found himself strangely in between, finding much to recommend (especially the two actresses) though also finding it unmoored and somewhat exhausting to experience.

“It’s a great brilliant modern film from such a young director, like a genius I think,” Campion said about Dolan. “When I saw the Godard film, I wasn’t expecting this. I was blown away by it. I loved the experience of the film, I found it so modern, like the fact that he throws a narrative away. It’s like a power, I found myself awakened, this is a free man, a very moving man. We coupled them, we were aware that they were the oldest and youngest director. The directors here know we owe our life’s blood to Godard.”

As expected, Timothy Spall captured the best actor prize for his role as the great British painter JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. Julianne Moore surprised with her ferocious, unhinged turn as an actress unhinged by her fading power in David Cronenberg’s deft, chilling Maps to the Stars. Working with his the skilled satirist Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg violently upends social behavior with his bracing, exceptionally disturbing, using the framework of the anti-Hollywood screed. Moore’s turn is unsettling, perverse and technically brilliant.

This is the full list of the award winners:

Palme d’Or: Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Grand prix: The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher)

Director: Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Jury prize: Mommy (Xavier Dolan) and Adieu au language (Jean-Luc Godard)

Screenplay: Levithan (Andrey Zvagintsev and Oleg Negin)

Actor: Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Actress: Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars

Cannes Dispatch #1

By Patrick McGavin

The 67th edition of this year’s film festival is roughly one-third over, and the early signs are pretty ecstatic. The competition has been tightly slotted, with just 18 features, three or four fewer than most years. It means the films get to breathe and live on their own.

In the first three days of the festival, three superb movies—one I think that will be seen in time as one of the greatest of its era—have already jolted the festival, defusing already the criticism of the festival selection committee playing it safe and familiar. (By the way my feeling has always been the people who criticize the programming most severely are the ones who rarely actually attend the festival.)

Cannes is the festival by which all others are judged. The competition titles are a kind of artistic referendum on the savvy, taste and ambition of the curators’ range, daring and originality. It’s early, but so far they have been vindicated. In turn it is the vast assembly here—of critics, writers, programmers and cinephiles—who get to viscerally experience the deep pleasures. (And that is with new works by Jean-Luc Godard, the Dardenne brothers, Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg still unseen.)

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The Mauritanian-born Abderrahmane Sissako is, I think, the finest director at work in Africa today. His disturbing, powerful new work, Timbuktu, was the first competition film shown and it is altogether stunning. The movie is angry and mournful, visually expressive and bound together by a sense of outrage and horror that gathers a tremendous cumulative power.The movie opens with an act of Taliban-like act of cultural desecration of militant Islamic jihadists spraying automatic rifle fire and laying waste to a series of culturally invaluable artifacts and statues.

The horror only escalates from there. Sissako was inspired by a horrifying episode from two years of a young couple stoned to death for having two children without being married. The movie conveys the severe social restriction and cultural coercion by the imposition, through force, of Sharia law as dancing, music and soccer are banned and women are ordered covered.

The jihadists are significantly primarily Arab, not black, unable to speak the local dialect and enforce a totalitarian stranglehold that bleeds the vitality and beauty of the village culture. The jihadists are solemn, reactionary and primitive (the leader arrives there unable to drive a car). The tightly regulated social behavior gives way to an annihilating form of sexual subjugation, the jihadist leader is constantly prowling around the dedicated, forceful Satima (Toulou Kiki). The story turns on a violent encounter between her husband, a cattle herder, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), and a fisherman.

Sissako has a poetic feel for landscapes, and his velvety, sinister black imagery is haunting.It contrasts brilliantly with the open, lunar-shaped surfaces of the desert landscapes. Timbuktu weaves a spellbinding arabesque combining the lyrical (a group of young dissidents partake in an invisible game of soccer to protest the crackdown) and the absurdist (a former “rapper,” drafted to make a propaganda video to atone for his “sins,” proves incapable of carrying out the assignment).

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Mike Leigh’s enthralling Mr. Turner is, principally, a fragmented, impressionistic study of the last 25 years of the life and art of the visionary Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Leigh has been talking about making this movie for at least a decade, and his passion fortunately never suffocates the material. It’s enlivening and provides a bracing perspective of the painter whose abstracted landscape works is regarded in some circles as an antecedent of Impressionism.

Leigh regular Timothy Spall plays (or, more accurately, incarnates) the eponymous Joseph Mallord William Turner, prickly and self-contained, a man of enormous appetites and needs. There’s a ferocious pas a deux with his housekeeper Hannah (the superb Dorothy Atkinson), and his arm grabbing hold of her is like a tentacle drawn to its prey. Turner’s harsh discipline and majestic solitude grants him a commanding solidity and shapes his intuitive grasp of nature.

Like most of Leigh’s players, Spall has always been an eccentric performer. He threw himself into the part with a manic gusto, practicing sketching and painting for more than two years before Leigh even commenced his patented rehearsal process. Mr. Turner excels in the way that fits Leigh’s own strengths, his extraordinary rapport with actors. The byplay between Turner and his father (the fantastic Paul Jesson), gruff and tender, and the widow, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he carried out a serious clandestine affair, are absolutely entrancing, skillfully teasing out aspects of character, reflection and mood that color the portraiture.

The most exciting part of the film, elevating it beyond the restrictions of the biographical form, is Leigh’s acumen and skill with the camera. Leigh is a colossus on the international art film scene. It has been a revelation to chart his almost radical evolution as a filmmaker, from the early actor-driven, plaintive style of his 16mm works to the deeper range and subtlety of Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. Dick Pope is his cinematographer, and also the camera operator.

From the majestic opening shot of a long pan in which two Dutch women slowly walk into the frame and cross the line of Turner, who’s furiously sketching, Mr. Turner is tactile and diaphanous. The cutting is also very bracing, like a sharp movement in closeup of Turner examining one of his own paintings to a jump cut of the solitary figure standing in the vast space of the interlaced rock formations and pock-marked landscapes. The man who started as a playwright, his dominant influence the work of John Cassavetes, and who cut his teeth making television commissions is now a certifiable master in his own right.

Mr. Turner is the most emphatic evidence yet.

The towering achievement, for me, is Winter Sleep, the 196-minute work by the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It deserves its own time and space, and I will return to this space soon with more.

Welles in L.A.

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I’ve got a piece in today’s LA Weekly previewing Academy @ LACMA’s new Orson Welles series, the most comprehensive in this city in at least a decade. The series includes more readily available titles, but there are a few more films Welles directed that are available online; I thought I’d list some here:

The Fountain of Youth (1956) (YouTube) This very witty television show, based on a story by mid-century fantasist John Collier, was only broadcast once in 1958, but it still managed to win a Peabody Award. It was intended to be the pilot for an anthology, but Welles was never permitted to continue the series.  It might have sank into obscurity if it wasn’t for the many Welles fans and experts who have rightly championed it for years.

The Immortal Story (1968) (Hulu Plus) Made for French TV, this adaptation of an Isak Dinesen short story stars Jeanne Moreau as the daughter of a man who’s ex-business partner (Welles) is now an aging business tycoon who hatches a plan to make an erotic urban legend come true.  It’s a strangely sedate and ethereal drama for Welles, and it downplays the potentially lurid elements of the story and replaces them with a reflective, simmering tone.

F for Fake trailer (1976) (YouTube) Welles made this lively nine-minute trailer when his film was released in the U.S., but the distributor never used it.

Filming ‘Othello’ (1978) (YouTube) Produced for West German television, this is an amiable “conversation” with Welles at the editing table, regaling the viewer with the colorful story of his three-year independent production of Othello. Among other things, he talks about his collaboration with designer Alexandre Trauner – whom he cites as one of the true artists of the profession (along with William Cameron Menzies, Vincent Korda and Georges Wakhevitch). He also incorporates a fascinating after dinner talk with his old theater friends (and Othello costars), Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, who engagingly discuss the themes of the play.

Filming ‘The Trial’ (1981) (YouTube) A feature shot by Welles’ late cameraman, Gary Graver, recording a live Q&A discussion at USC following a screening of the film.

It’s All True (1993) (Amazon streaming) This documentary about Welles’ experience in Brazil during the 1940s shooting his unfinished film for RKO makes extensive use of Welles’ original footage that was discovered and restored in the ’80s and ’90s. Despite a slightly dated flair in the narration, it’s beautiful, well-researched and well-written (by critic Bill Krohn, Welles associate Richard Wilson, and critic Myron Meisel), detailing the complex events and political undercurrents at the time.

The Projection Booth: The Magnificent Ambersons (2013) I recently came across this gem, a roughly 48-minute podcast from last December about Ambersons that includes interviews with experts such as Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph McBride and Jonathan Rosenbaum.  You can also find a four-hour version; I’ve only listened to a portion of that one, but it seems to feature a lot more material by the hosts of the podcast.