Cannes ’14, Day Three: An epic, an anthology, another biopic, and a gem

Cannes ’14, Day Three: An epic, an anthology, another biopic, and a gem

From a distance, Cannes has always looked to me like a kind of grand alternate universe, one where a challenging, personal, or fiercely distinctive movie might be treated with the flashbulb excitement of a Hollywood premiere. Yesterday, three days into my first trip to the festival, that abstract notion solidified into reality as I climbed red-carpeted stairs to enter the 2300-seat Lumiere Theatre; inside, a near-capacity crowd of lavishly attired guests—plus a few schlubby journalists in jeans and button-up shirts, myself included—sat quietly for a languid, very-long Turkish drama. It was strangely heartening, if only as a reminder that there are places where important directors are treated like bona fide celebrities and a new auteur work is an event worth getting dressed up for.

Sadly, my enthusiasm didn’t quite survive the duration of the screening. Winter Sleep (Grade: B-), the latest from fest regular Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is this year’s requisite epic—that one Cannes competitor that’s a little longer, a little bigger, a little more unchained than the others. (And that’s saying something, given the generally extended runtimes of the films it’s competing against; even the dude who made The Artist brought an ass-numbing effort.) Ceylan has occupied this role before: Just three years ago, he won a major prize for Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a kind of existential detective story stretched across two and a half patient hours. Winter Sleep is even longer; it’s also an entirely different animal, less reliant on gorgeous scenery (though there’s plenty of that, too) than on endless chatter. Even those who grooved to Anatolia’s molasses crawl may find this new one a tough sit.

These days, the modest, faintly comic charms of Ceylan’s 2002 film Distant seem like, well, a distant memory. The man is now an Important Filmmaker, tackling weighty questions on large canvases. Points must be granted for audacity, which Winter Sleep has in spades. At heart, the film is a study of unchecked privilege and narcissism, centered on the dressing down of a wealthy, condescending windbag. Aydin (an exquisitely passive-aggressive Haluk Bilginer) lives a life of relative luxury in rural Anatolia, collecting rent checks from the mostly impoverished tenants of his hotel. A retired actor, he now writes a scathing opinion column for the local newspaper, using the platform to take potshots at his neighbors. He is a distinctly, amusingly loathsome creation—petty, cowardly, disguising his insults as helpful advice.

At first, Winter Sleep seems like a slow-boiling tale of class warfare. The plot begins with a literal thrown stone; the son of a tenant hurls it as Aydin’s car window, avenging the humiliation his drunkard dad has suffered at the hands of the landlord’s loan sharks. Yet the real attack on the protagonist’s cozy life comes not from the locals but from his inner circle of loved ones, the divorced sister (Demet Akbag) and much-younger wife (Melisa Sözen) who simultaneously decide that they’ve had enough. From here, the film plays like Ceylan’s adaptation of some imaginary Russian stage play, heavy on scenes of heated conversation. The characters engage in protracted tête-à-têtes—talking over the crackle of a fire, dredging up old failures and disappointments, and speaking of Istanbul the way the sisters of Chekhov’s Three Sisters speak of Moscow.

I have a very premature feeling that Winter Sleep could win the Palme. It has Big Themes, strong performances, stunning images of the Turkish landscape, and Ceylan’s byline. What it doesn’t have is any good reason to be almost 200 minutes long. The film peaks with a pair of lengthy quarrels—big, wounding battles between Aydin and his fed-up family members. From there, it just keeps on going and going and going. (Did the wife really need her own blinkered worldview upended, too?) There’s a powerful movie buried in the borderless sprawl of Winter Sleep. I just wish Ceylan had let it be a drama instead of inflating it into a monument to his expanding ambition.

There would be worse ways for the Cannes jury to vote, though—for example, in favor of Bertrand Bonello’s uninspired biopic Saint Laurent (Grade: C), which is roughly 45 minutes shorter than Winter Sleep but actually felt longer to me. Gaspard Ulliel, who played a young, sneering Dr. Lecter in Hannibal Rising, stars as the revered French fashion designer, depicted here as a cocky hedonist plagued with constant insecurity about his legacy. The opening scene finds him conducting a phone interview in which he discusses his time at a mental institute; for a brief moment, I entertained the exciting thought that Bonello might focus exclusively on that chapter of the artist’s life, essentially offering an asylum drama with a famous protagonist. No such luck: Saint Laurent turns out to be the usual decades-spanning profile, a rise-and-fall story that hits most of the expected graphs of its subject’s Wikipedia page (including a tedious addiction spiral). Though the film grazes the question of how to preserve a brand and still innovate, it seems less interested in Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic work than his sex-and-drugs lifestyle—the Martin Scorsese fashion revue version of the story. Bonello, hot off the terrific House Of Pleasures, manages some striking sequences; for example, he stages Saint Laurent’s first encounter with Jacques De Bascher (Louis Garrel) not with reverse shots, but by panning back and forth across a crowd of dancing bodies. Overall, though, this is biopic business as usual. Did I underrate Mr. Turner?

A welcome jolt of irreverence arrived courtesy of Wild Tales (Grade: B), an Argentine anthology of dark-comic vignettes. As with most omnibus projects, the segments are of variable quality, ranging in this case from incredibly inspired (the lunatic cold open; a Coen-ish tale of road rage) to amusing but unsatisfying (a hit-and-run narrative that fails to stick the landing). Yet the energy never flags, and there’s an evenness of tone uncommon to the multi-story format—probably because each segment was written and directed by the same stylish filmmaker, Damián Szifron. (We’ll be hearing more from this guy, mark my words.) The farcical mayhem also has a social dimension, its roots planted firmly in class conflict, frustration with government bureaucracy, and a general disdain for privilege. At its core, however, Wild Tales is basically an E.C. Comics sampler, minus the horror but not the wicked irony or karmic justice. Fans of Creepshow and Pietro Germi should be equally enthused.

Finally, I’m forced to confess both fascination and befuddlement in the face of Amour Fou (Grade: B+), Jessica Hausner’s follow-up to Lourdes. Set in Romantic-era Berlin, the film puts a vaguely absurdist spin on creaky chamber-romance conventions, offering a love triangle between real-life German poet Heinrich Von Kleist and the two women he courted. The catch? The melodramatic Heinrich (Christian Friedel) wants one of these women to prove her affection by agreeing to a murder-suicide pact, hence demonstrating that death with him is more valuable than life without him. While sensible cousin Marie (Sandra Hueller) balks at the ghoulish proposition, the married Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) entertains it—especially once she gets a potentially fatal diagnosis.

One could imagine a straight take on this stranger-than-fiction scenario, but Hausner takes a different tack, finding bone-dry humor in Heinrich’s hilariously self-pitying pleads. He sees nothing unreasonable about his request, which makes the movie a comic jab at a certain breed of persistent creep—the self-described romantic who wears down his conquest with guilt trips and melodrama, but whose love is really just a reflection of his own narcissism. (The fact that Heinrich would be happy with either victim/lover says a lot about how deep his feelings run.) What’s troubling is the ambivalence expressed by Henriette; Hausner never quite penetrates the motivation of her manipulated heroine—though that was true of Lourdes, too, so maybe that’s her M.O.

Either way, the young director further perfects her craft, exhibiting a striking control of composition, while packing each frame with carefully arranged period-piece details. (She is a kindred spirit to Wes Anderson in both regards, though no one would ever call her films “whimsical.”) If nothing else, Amour Fou is fascinating for its deliberately awkward approximation of mannered aristocracy, as though Hausner were attempting to comically out-stiff Merchant and Ivory. As with Lourdes, the film is flummoxing in its ambiguity, and the grade above should be considered a tentative one; repeat viewings would probably work in its favor.

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