CANNES, France — "I guess now is as good a time as any to start my 'Nuri Bilge Ceylan for ANT-MAN' campaign," tweeted Istanbul-based critic Ali Arikan the morning after Ceylan's film "Winter Sleep" won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Sometimes a single sentence plopped into the river of social media can provide the sort of waggish reality check a critic needs. The thought of Ceylan taking on a superhero franchise launch is inherently nutty, like Ingmar Bergman tackling "The Incredible Hulk." (Though Bergman would've brought out a new, terrifying ferocity in the Hulk's brooding moments.) Ceylan's Palme d'Or-winning feature is taken from several Anton Chekhov short stories, runs 196 minutes and contains not one flagrant digital special effect other than its sheer, cinematically assured beauty.
It belongs to a very different medium than the medium most of the world knows as cinema.
Nobody's kidding anyone about the probable commercial fortunes of "Winter Sleep," which lacked a U.S. distributor the weekend it triumphed at the world's most famous and influential film festival. Ceylan's previous feature, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," grossed $152,408 in the U.S. Ceylan's work doesn't draw big audiences in Turkey, even. His vision is cool, patient, though full of sly wit and a serious interest in the human heart. He is an artist, rather than a commercial strategist, and although many of our greatest international directors are, and have been, a little of both, Ceylan is not.
This was a well-regarded and, I think, excellent pick for the Palme d'Or, though "Winter Sleep" has little in common with last year's big winner at Cannes, the controversial and sensually driven "Blue Is the Warmest Color." Though many regarded the French-language picture, derived from a graphic novel, as heterosexualized lesbian near-pornography, it had enough messy, vibrant emotionalism to satisfy last year's Cannes jury president, Steven Spielberg.
Here's a patently useless question: Would a Spielberg-led jury have awarded the top prize to "Winter Sleep?"
Here is what it comes down to: fate and the personalities of the jurors. Campion loved the film, as did at least four of her eight fellow jurors. Voila: a majority. For all the talk about what a particular Cannes festival slate signifies, and how the awards point to the future of the medium, it's a peculiarly hermetic process built on a purely aesthetic response. How else are you going to do this sort of thing? And sometimes the winners go on to conquer the world, as did Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" 20 years ago, as did "Taxi Driver" a generation earlier. As will "Winter Sleep," in its own ruminative way, on its own microscopic economic scale.
Ceylan does not aim for the heartstrings or tear ducts primarily, or shamelessly, certainly not the way another Cannes competition title this year, Xavier Dolan's "Mommy," made people weep buckets of tears in its Cannes screenings last week.(Dolan, at 25 the youngest of the 18 directors competing for the Palme, shared the Jury Prize Saturday with the oldest director in competition, 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard, whose latest is "Goodbye to Language."
Two of the 18 competing titles were American, though two of the Canadian pictures were American enough to seem, well, American, even though the directors hail from north of the border. Opening this fall, director Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" enjoyed a tremendous critical response in Cannes, its artful, methodically sustained atmosphere of moneyed dread casting a spell over many critics. Steve Carell's meticulous, minimalist turn as billionaire John du Pont, who financed a facility and fancied himself a coach for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, drew deserved plaudits, though it was director Miller who was recognized by Campion's jury with a directing prize.
Among the British press, particularly, "Foxcatcher's" larger statements about late 20th century American rot and hypocrisy among the ruling classes went over beautifully. Sony Pictures Classics has backed Miller's project from the beginning, and already SPC heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard are positioning "Foxcatcher" as a prestige offering for the fall awards season, with probable Oscar nominations on the horizon.
Tommy Lee Jones' Nebraska-set pioneer story "The Homesman" was the other U.S. title, and the 19th century vision of America it presents is that of a forbidding patriarchy, patronizing to women at best, murderously brutal at worst. The film had little or no awards heat going into the closing weekend of Cannes 2014. As tens of thousands of Cannes attendees played the guessing game of predicting Campion's tastes and favorites, many at the festival (including me) found themselves wondering, in private or in public, whether Campion would go for something "wet," like "Mommy," instead of something chillier to the touch, such as "Winter Sleep" or the other masterwork of the 18 competition titles, the state-of-modern-Russia corruption fable "Leviathan."
At the closing night press conference following the awards, someone asked Campion if she had a feminist agenda going into the judging. "The gender of the filmmaker never entered our discussion," she responded. "Not once." Another journalist plainly baffled by "Winter Sleep" inquired whether Campion found Ceylan's female characters difficult to like, less than noble. "My God, I loved the females in this film," she said, adding: "When you portray an ideal, you … kind of betray reality." It may have been the most succinct sentence uttered during the festival.
The reality of Cannes is that it's absurd, akin to the idea of Ceylan doing a superhero blockbuster. The money on view is staggering; the Hollywood Reporter estimated that the city itself reaps $270 million over the 12 days of the festival in money spent on food, lodging and the occasional tank rental. Sylvester Stallone rode a tank down the Croisette as a promotional stunt for the upcoming "Expendables 3," stirring up weird Nazis-invading-again associations for many French natives in the vicinity. I went to a "Hunger Games" party at a rented villa in Cap d'Antibes where the women and men swanning around with trays of Champagne were costumed and made up like evil plutocrats enjoying life in the "Hunger Games" capitol city, Panem.
And then on Friday, at a theater just off the Croisette, I saw a Ukrainian film in the Semaine de la Critique parallel selection, called "The Tribe," that was unlike any I'd ever experienced. Set in a run-down boarding school for deaf and mute residents, it follows a new arrival and his trial by fire in a hellish universe ruled by organized crime on a small but vicious scale.
As the protagonist, Sergey, falls for one of the prostitutes under the thumb of the skinny young ringleader, "The Tribe" tightens the noose around the characters as well as the audience. Violence begets violence; hope is scarce, to be found only in careless love between two human beings.
It is essentially a silent film, written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, though non-verbal is a more apt description because we always hear the sounds the characters do not. The constant, expressive torrent of sign language goes untranslated in "The Tribe." There are no subtitles. We are there, as an audience, to figure out what's being transacted scene by scene.
The content is some of the most explicit in recent memory, and one sequence depicts an abortion that sent many in the Cannes audience up the aisles and out the door. Unblinking, dispassionate but told with a stubborn sense of the humanity being squandered, "The Tribe" deserves a wider audience.
For all the visible signage and promotional euros lavished on behalf of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1" or "How to Train Your Dragon 2," the latter screening here out of competition, the Cannes Film Festival itself reminds you of the everyday value of one-to-one transactions and interactions. Juliette Binoche, who starred in the Olivier Assayas competition title "Clouds of Sils Maria," told me she took a supporting role in "Godzilla" because one of her children thought it'd be cool — and because the film's director, Gareth Edwards, wrote her a nice letter explaining his reasons for wanting her in the movie.
On the final night of Cannes 2014, at the harbor establishment and festival watering hole La Pizza, Quentin Tarantino (in town for a Sergio Leone tribute and a 20th anniversary "Pulp Fiction" screening, massively well-attended) took a moment to sign the festival poster on the wall near one of the pizza ovens. Then he went back to his table, and the rest of us finished our post mortem conversations and pizzas. We all agreed every Cannes festival feels at least two days too long. By day five you start to notice the number of eye infections and persistent coughs at the screenings. By day seven the espresso isn't doing its job anymore. By day nine the calls home get a little tougher, a little more yearning.
And thanks to a few poets, such as Godard or Ceylan, it's all over too soon.
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