Turkish master director Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns to the Cannes Croisette with About Dry Grasses, a wonderful wintry meditation on male fragility and the way we often make our own hells and then deceive ourselves that we’re trapped.
The film opens with a landscape obliterated by snow, the only feature a road sign. Even here in the white void there are limits which make their demands. Samet (Deniz Celiloglu) is a respected art teacher who tiredly broods on his own position. Teaching village children how to draw he works perfunctorily, distracting himself with some amateur photography and drinking with a local shop owner. He has a teacher’s pet Sevim (Ece Bagci), a bright girl who he gives trinkets to and takes an interest in.
When Samet is accused of inappropriate behaviour by a student, it is obvious who it relates to, and also implied that Samet’s hostile defence is partly provoked by a sense of partial guilt. The problem is a non-problem but Samet worries about it, along with his housemate and fellow teacher, Kenan (Musab Ekici), who has also been included in the accusation. Kenan keeps pushing, punishing Sevim and his students, revealing a hopeless narcissism. He doesn’t seem aware that his role as a teacher is not to have them reaffirm his importance in the world, but to teach them. Instead he denigrates them as potato pickers, coiled around his wounds, uncertain whether he’s protecting or nurturing them.
An affectionate friendship starts with a neighbouring school principal Nuray (Merve Dizdar), a woman who has lost her leg in a suicide bombing, but is still hopeful of the work she can do. She is also, like him, an amateur artist but, uncertain and awkward, Samet plays matchmaker with her and Kenan, only to grow resentful when she shows interest in Kenan. The director and his co-screenwriters Erbu Ceylan and Akin Aksu unfold the dialectic between hope and intellectually sanctioned despair in a long dialogue scene between the two, which shows Samet’s posturing of intellectual aloofness up against Nuray’s hard straightforward questions.
When the night looks to be moving in a sexual direction, Ceylan has his character nip off the set of the film, through the studio to the bathroom to take a viagra. The breaking of the fourth wall is jarring on so many levels – we’re over two hours into the film at this point – and yet he has built his world so convincingly that the illusion continues regardless. It is one moment of genius and audacity. There are many.
Can anyone frame and shoot a scene as well as Ceylan and his cinematographers Cevahir Şahin and Kürşat Üresin? His landscapes are stunning, his squalor convincing, his rooms lived in and yet artfully expressive (which makes the fourth wall break again so disruptive, an artist vandalising his own creation). His style is still moving: there’s even an inventive use of quick pans which is new. His characters are nuanced and likeable despite their obvious flaws. A masterful filmmaker Ceylan certainly is; a chooser of inviting titles, he is not. His Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep sounds like a snooze fest and now About Dry Grasses…you can imagine his producer cheering when he heard that title.
Despite its 197-minute runtime, About Dry Grasses is part-Chekovian comedy of yearning and male ego, and part-tragedy of a country which stymies the growth of its own citizens. Despite everything, Samet is a man who is so comfortable in his complaints that he won’t improve his own situation. He’d rather see all fail so as to prove that he is right. His treatment of Sevim proves that far from being the critic of the system he is its beneficiary and indeed agent.
The 76th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty