When looking at a film festival’s lineup, especially one as prestigious as any year’s Cannes lineup, there are a handful of names that outshine the masses. Take this year’s rather superb lineup for example. French legends like Jean-Luc Godard will be hitting the Croisette this year, in competition, opposite iconic genre auteurs like David Cronenberg, Oscar winners like Michel Hazanavicius and hot up and coming Cannes staples like Xavier Dolan. However, while the Mike Leighs, the Bennette Millers or the Dardenne Brothers may be getting the most publicity, there is one name that is on the tips of many cinephiles as to who is behind their most anticipated film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Making a return to Cannes after 2011’s brilliant Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan will be debuting his newest picture, Winter Sleep, a three-hour-plus opus that seems right up the alley of any fan of the director’s collection of breathtaking dramas. And it’s an extremely long list of gems he’s given the world.
Himself a staple of Cannes, Ceylan has had a lengthy career dating back to his first short, Cocoon, itself a film that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Launching into his first feature just two years later with the 1997 release Kasaba, that film marked the beginning of a relatively unofficial trilogy lovingly known as his “provincial trilogy,” as well as a career that has supplanted him as one of today’s greatest and most interesting voices in all of world cinema. However, it’s that trilogy’s final film that gets the spotlight here as part of our ongoing For Criterion Consideration series.
Entitled Uzak (Distant), the film stars Mehmet Emin Toprak (the star of all three films here) as a man named Yusuf, a distant relative of a man named Mahmut. Mahmut is a solitary fellow, a quiet yet successful commercial photographer dealing with both an ever growing gap between his artistic ideals and those of the people he works for and also the weight of a failed marriage he feels deep regret about, only to have his entire life changed by the arrival of the aforementioned distant relative. In need of a place to stay while job hunting, Yusuf arrives and throws Mahmut’s life into complete disarray, and what follows is an entrancing meditation on isolation and loneliness that is a breathtaking visual experiment of the highest, and most muted, regard.
Always a director interested in epic-style human dramas told in an almost purely photographic way, this photographer-turned-filmmaker is far and away this picture’s biggest star and its most interesting talking point. Often compared to a director like Carl Theodore Dryer for his interest in the use of faces as a major dramatic medium, Ceylan goes a slightly different route with this breathless blending of dry comedy and emotionally devastating dramatic realism. Told through various long scenes and long takes, the film carries with it much of Ceylan’s distinct style (particularly the use of focus as a deeply powerful visual device), but it also carries within its DNA nods to filmmakers ranging from Ozu to Tati, both of whom are often mentioned in the same breath when discussing this period of Ceylan’s career. There is one sequence here in particular, involving Yusuf attempting to get into a building that is so distinctly Tati in its comedic timing and its framing that pairing it with much of the film’s latter drama really adds to the depth of both sides of this film’s tonal barometer. The sparsity of Ceylan’s frame plays into the film’s inherent drama perfectly, feeling very much like the aesthetic manifestation of our pair of leads and their sense of unending, defeating isolation.
Aesthetically, the film owes a great deal to Ceylan’s career as a photographer. Beautifully shot by Ceylan himself, the film is naturally lit and features desolate frames that feel as isolating as a Wes Anderson frame feels clogged with stuff. Warm yet sparse apartment interiors combat hazey coffee shops and isolating exteriors, all feeling like a series of filmed tableaux, only breaking the raw naturalism when Ceylan sees fit to toy with the aforementioned use of focus, a staple of his auteur stamp. Quiet and entrancing, the film lulls the viewer into a dream like state both enveloping one in real, raw, human drama while also taking one’s breath away with even the most simple flight of aesthetic fancy. A truly superb small scale meditation on the human condition, this is an absolute triumph of dramatic filmmaking, one that turns completely the sense of style as substance up all the way to eleven.
Performance-wise, the film is equally as great. Both Mehmet Emin Toprak and Muzaffer Ozdemir, cast as Yusuf and Mahmut respectively, give revelatory performances here. Ceylan acolytes know how truly great a thespian Toprak is, a perfect vehicle for Ceylan’s small scale storytelling, with an intriguing and expressive face, a perfect face for this type of tale of longing and isolation to play out on. It’s an oppressive type of drama, and all of the real emotion is drawn directly from both Ceylan’s sparse frame and the face of his leading man. Opposite him is Ozdemir, giving an equally great performance here, one carrying with it its own sense of regret and isolation. The pair are superb together in their moments, particularly as their already distant relationship crumbles under the weight of their mutual displeasure with their lots in life. Their cold and deeply insular performances, but there’s an energy behind the film and these performances that really pushes the narrative forward and the drama to heights rarely seen today.
Over a decade old, the film is a relatively hard find on home video. Originally released on DVD in 2005, the film’s only home video release is a relatively solid buy if you can find it, as it includes Ceylan’s amazing debut short, an interview and a behind the scenes piece, but with such a gorgeous film being relegated to the world of out of print DVDs, it is in dire need of an update. A new transfer would be more than welcome here, really giving new life to a gorgeous drama that should be seen by more people. Pair it with Ceylan’s previous three pictures, a series of commentaries and a collection of critical essays, visual essays and interview segments, and this could be one hell of a Criterion Collection box set. A film both emotionally complex and delightfully droll in its sense of humor, this beautifully bleak meditation on isolation is one of the various near-masterpieces from one of today’s greatest cinematic artists. Hopefully Criterion will one day give us the Blu-ray this film, this director and the film world truly deserve.