Cannes 2023 Review: ABOUT DRY GRASSES, Turkish Drama Is Too Profound By Half
Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns with his seventh consecutive Cannes Competition entry, another sprawling three-hour plus drama about the human condition.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been a mainstay at the Cannes Film Festival for the past two decades.
Since 2002, he’s made seven films and, remarkably, has been selected in the Cannes Main Competition for all of them, an honor afforded to a chosen few, designating him as a favorite son of Cannes. Five of those seven films won awards at the festival’s closing ceremony and have become emblematic of the cinema Cannes seeks to promote: formally rigorous, pictorially beautiful and thematically resonant.
Over the course of his last three films, however, a bloviating sprawl, tending towards indulgence, has begun weighing down his cinema. As his films have supposedly increased in profundity, so they have in length, though cineastes of a certain bent often confuse the two or mistakenly think they are synonymous with each other.
In actual fact, at an average runtime of over 190 minutes for his last three films, a belabored quality has crept into his work. An excess of solemnity is expended over modest, common-place insights, with the law of diminishing returns working against Ceylan. There’s increasingly a feeling of “all of this over that?”
Nevertheless, basic competence in cinema can go a long way. An accomplished filmmaker of repute ensures that, sins of excess notwithstanding, his films are watchable, and command your respect if not always your love or attention. Ceylan’s latest film, About Dry Grasses, third in his “epic-length” phase, is actually the most worthwhile of the bunch, besting 2017’s The Wild Pear Tree, and even his Palme d’Or winner, 2014’s Winter Sleep.
About Dry Grasses has a double narrative, moving along two essentially unrelated stories but concerning the same two characters, primary school teachers Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu) and Kenan (Musab Ekici). Samet is our primary protagonist (and sometimes narrator) and the film is his odyssey of self-realization.
The first storyline has Samet and Kenan accused of inappropriate contact with their students. Of special interest is a teenage girl that Samet is very friendly with, Sevim (Ece Bağcı). Both teachers are outraged and profess innocence when an investigation is launched, though the waters remain muddy because a lot happens offscreen and the exact nature of the accusations is never abundantly clear.
The second storyline forms the bulk of the latter half of the film and is a “love triangle” of sorts where Samet and Kenan, not only colleagues but actually roommates and social friends, each try to court a beautiful, disabled teacher Nuray (Merve Dizdar). In the most uncharitable terms, this storyline is straight out of Euphoria or any number of teen dramas or even comedies, where there is a tacit one-upmanship contest to get at a girl first.
In broader terms, many people in their school or college life or even beyond will encounter such situations. This scenario is played at excessive gravity here, as if it is a shattering, devastating life experience for these 30-something characters.
The import and presentation thus feel out of sorts with the actual content of Ceylan’s screenplay. His slight stories feel unsuited for such portentous “epic” treatment.
His characters, speaking perhaps in his voice, also tend towards verbosity, so that lengthy dialog scenes are staged with dense philosophical exchanges lest you miss Ceylan’s thematic point, in lieu of the audience organically coming to their own conclusions via on-screen story-telling. Some filmmakers would balk at the prospect of explaining what the “take-away” of their stories is, deeming it to be an encroachment upon the audience’s prerogative. Ceylan clearly thinks otherwise, as he will double and triple underline his key themes, often in dialog, lest you miss them.
A consequence of Ceylan’s approach is that his movies do not age well in memory, surely a most grievous outcome for him. His movies will play well and have an impact in the moment but because of the density of the artist’s expression, the overall impression that lingers is muddy.
Conversely, in a successful, concise movie, the audience is keenly aware of the insight they organically arrived at themselves and remember it with feeling. Ceylan doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a good story, well told being pleasurable in itself. For him, a film has to be a meaningful, transcendental experience to be worth its salt, setting up a chore not only for the storyteller but for the audience member.
Even in the midst of an overwrought approach, there are pleasures to be had. Ceylan’s always had a keen eye for cinematic frames and exterior landscape shots of the snow-covered terrain are stunning. The evocation of setting and place –- in this case, a small rural town that our group of teachers from the city work in -– is convincing.
The acting too is good across the board. Merven Dizdar, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her supporting part, is especially good as an attractive young woman still learning to navigate her sexuality in the face of her disability and the restrictive expectations of the men who seek to court her. Deniz Celiloğlu is apt as the tortured, self-hating Byronic hero. Musab Ekici as the third wheel in all of this drama does what he can with an underwritten part as, despite the immense length, his character is poorly defined.
James Joyce via his Dubliners set the template of extraordinarily modest and commonplace stories, nevertheless managing to say something essential about the human condition. Throughout the history of cinema, hundreds of filmmakers have done exactly that. And then you have Ceylan’s stories, also modest but overburdened with meaning. Ceylan would do well to focus just on story-telling next time and leave the act of analyzing his stories with whom it belongs: the audience.
About Dry Grasses premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released in the USA by Sideshow and Janus Films.