The one consensus about the first few days of Cannes 2014 is that there really hasn’t been a consensus. While the Official Competition received its first knockout punch on Friday with the world premiere of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterful behemoth Winter Sleep, even the Turkish director’s latest opus has up to this point received a mostly mixed reception. Can’t we all just get along?
Seemingly the answer is no. This year’s festival has been defined by the lonely champion: many film critics have found themselves screaming provocative praise for one widely dismissed film after the next. This has created a diversity of contrasting opinions and lively discourse that has only made the Palais queues far more interesting than normal. Maybe the only thing everyone can agree on is their hatred for Keren Yedaya’s brutal Loin de mon pére (That Lovely Girl), which happens to be one of my favorites thus far. So there you go.
If we’re ignoring Olivier Dahan’s much-maligned Grace of Monaco (like I did), Cannes truly began with Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. A damning critique of religious fundamentalism and absolute power, the film takes a microscope to the titular rural village in Mali under siege by jihadists trying to impose their iron will over a mostly indifferent populace. Some residents mutter about in town begrudgingly dealing with the masked gunmen, while others have either emigrated or retreated to the isolated desert region to live on the fringes.
Mixing surreal slow motion stylistics and blunt social commentary, Sissako paints a communal portrait where the insurgents and residents are both caught up in a web of hierarchal conflict that inevitably overlaps. One jihadi commander wants desperately to wed a married local woman and another is immersed in a strange relationship with the town subversive. All of this despite their attempt to enforce rigorous sanctions outlawing music, colorful clothing and other acts of artistic expression.
Timbuktu deftly explores the many ways repression is deflected by a citizen army simply living their everyday experiences through defiance; one birds-eye-view of a woman blocking a military jeep from passing through a narrow road is a protest statement unto itself. Such moments act as counterpoints to sequences like the film’s opening where traditional statues and figurines are riddled with bullets and left on display for the populace as a warning.
This is not to say Sissako’s film has heroes or villains. Only conflicted and delusional people populate each frame, some of whom that are actually convinced that jihad is about as effective as mowing grass with an AK-47.
Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner made for a challenging first morning screening. Flabby in length and sporting some seriously gnarly tonal shifts, this massive biopic examines the late-period life of the British landscape painter who made waves in the 19th century for his eccentric views and stubborn aesthetics. While it doesn’t cohere very convincingly as a drama, the film is ambitious enough to admit that history is not an easily discernible timeline. Life resides in its many painterly cracks.
Leigh opens with a gorgeous lateral tracking shot that follows a pair of Dutch women as they walk along a peaceful creek bed. Toward the end of the take, the camera suddenly breaks off and pans up to reveal the shadow of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) standing on a hill sketching a piece. He’s framed perfectly at the center of an expressionist composition whose double could be hanging in the artist’s own personal gallery seen later in the film.
The stylistic flourishes come few and far between throughout the rest of Mr. Turner, but when Leigh punches out to wide angle he reminds the viewer how visually impressive a filmmaker he can be. Unfortunately, much of it is self-contained inside dusty parlor rooms and residences where Turner lives or operates while on scouting vacations. Here we get stodgy (and sometimes funny) set pieces littered with round about dialogue and grotesque grunts by Spall that help to create what can only be described as a phlegmy view of human nature.
Speaking of cackling human beings, the villains operating the child-sex ring at the center of Atom Egoyan’s The Captive are obscenely omniscient in their heinousness. These terrible guys see everything. Starring Ryan Reynolds and Mireille Enos as parents of an abducted young girl, this Niagara Falls-set thriller jumps around in time to spruce up an otherwise ludicrous kidnapping narrative. All the pinballing can’t hide its true self.
The Internet and cyber-technology play a pivotal role in the film’s plot, but none of the characters that are specialists in these fields seem especially competent. This could pertain to the mostly hidden sect of child pornographers as well, especially the comically maniacal baddie played by Kevin Durand. His thin mustache marks his nefarious character as evil but the man himself is a constant psychological conundrum.
If the icy complexion of The Captive only resonates convincingly when the roar of passing semi-trucks explode along windswept highways, one can always feel the cold ache of the slow Anatolian freeze in Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. It’s a mountain film, a frigid western melodrama where the aged capitalist baron is a reclusive louse who finally realizes that his expansive power does not exist in a vacuum. But instead of six shooters and spray guns, these characters use words to maim each other mostly during interior sparring matches that only end in silence and smoke.
A semi-successful ex-actor named Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) owns a regional hotel built into the side of a sandstone rock face, offering international guests a unique and stimulating view of the surrounding countryside. He lives on-site with his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and sister Necia (Demet Akbağ), albeit each is sectioned off in a separate wing. At first, their relationships are presented as normal, surface-level facades of people living calmly in close proximity.
The subtext between this trio is not entirely clear, but it starts to grow menacing near the halfway point, simmering before coming to full boil in two epic throw downs that faithfully express the repetitive and destructive nature of word combat within an asunder of crumbling couples.
For the opening act of Winter Sleep, Ceylan seems to be dealing entirely with regional and social qualms between landowners and their tenants, filtered through a very prismatic lens. One perfectly thrown rock shatters a car window, jettisoning the narrative into an alternate direction. Yet in its later stages, the film dedicates itself to the rhythms of manipulation and mental imprisonment on a more personal level, something that is adroitly externalized thanks to the extreme environmental conditions surrounding the story.
While this Ceylan is uniquely contained on a visual level, it still retains much of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s themes regarding individual and institutional control and arrogance. Aydin consistently writes a newspaper column pontificating on social issues that he knows nothing about, and then later tries to take control of his wife’s finances. Being a man so used to consistent control, these impulses are not surprising even if they are damnable.
What makes Winter Sleep so haunting (and otherwise stunning) is it’s understanding of patriarchy as a seamless and ingrained methodology waiting to grow a new head. If the film’s final three shots are any indication, then these talented word surgeons will continue operating on their flat-lined marriage until the end of time. I can’t think of a worse purgatory to find myself in, except maybe the “Kindergarten Cop” room in The Captives.