Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest cinematic breadcrumb trail, follows a group of conflicted institutional figures (lawyer, doctor, police chief, mayor) trying to reconcile the difference between public record and fairy tale. Both inevitably become part of the same communal lie, markers of deep-seeded social and familial manipulation. Throughout Ceylan’s sprawling anti-mystery, where these “respected” men escort a criminal around the desolate Turkish countryside fruitlessly trying to find the body of a murder victim, fact and fiction often overlap through lengthy conversations and shared memories. But this isn’t a form of togetherness binding the men. Ceylan is purely interested in slowly unveiling a thematic can of worms that will tear them apart one long take at a time.
Limited character perspective develops mystery and tension during the long and arduous all-night police search. The characters are sectioned off into three vehicles, and we listen in on segments of each group’s meandering displays of verbal one-upmanship. Ceylan weaves the men’s competing voices together in interesting ways, overlapping dialogue and sound design to maximize a sense of character and place. As with Distant, Ceylan revels in hypnotic extreme long shots of the countryside, capturing the wind in the trees, a falling apple rolling down a stream, and the endless rolling hills of Anatolia. His static camera examines long character exchanges from afar, usually in one master shot, extending the duration and importance of seemingly minute details about each character.
Most of Anatolia exists in a perpetual state of waiting; the criminal can’t remember where he buried the body of his friend, whom he supposedly killed in a drunken rage over an argument about a woman. Ceylan’s duality between truth and fantasy finds a core in the conversations between doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and prosecutor Nurset (Taner Birsel), who passively watch as the erratic police try to piece together the puzzle of the missing body. Their topics of discourse are initially very casual, growing in complexity as the search drags on to uncomfortable lengths. A story about a woman who predicted her own death brings a rhythm to Ceylan’s thematic heart, and the consequences of this particular thread lingers for the entire film.
One could definitely argue that Anatolia needs trimming, especially in the early sections where scenes seem to repeat at will. But Ceylan’s power as a filmmaker stems from his insistence to linger within a specific moment for an unusual amount of time. A long take within a farmhouse, which follows a young woman serving tea to a line of men by dim lamplight, is a stunning example of Ceylan’s kino eye. Still, I can’t help but feel Anatolia is crippled by its strenuous attention to the droll rhythms of everyday contradiction. The final moral compromise is scathing, but it’s nothing I didn’t expect from this wary group of country warblers immersed in suffocating bureaucratic red tape.
A specific time and place also defines Joachim Trier’s Oslo, 31. August, a superbly crafted character study about a 30-year-old man’s life evaporating over the course of a single day. Released from a state-run home for recovering drug addicts, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) journeys to his hometown of Oslo for a job interview and to potentially commit suicide. Even though he’s at the end of his recovery process, Anders is still deeply tormented by the consequences of his devastating drug addiction. His eyes are deep pools of regret and guilt, his mouth slightly quivering during moments of extreme disappointment. This journey through the streets of Oslo rekindles memories about his parents, childhood, and older sister, all incomplete fragments of a completely alien life.
The film shows Anders meeting up with old friends, some supportive and others hurtful, catching up together at Oslo’s park benches, cafes, swimming pools, and balconies, emotional pulpits for a young man grasping at redemption. A remarkable use of voiceover opens up the entire city to a plethora of audible possibilities, including Anders’s yearnings and those of the immediate strangers living around him. Trier follows behind Anders with a steady and unassuming camera aesthetic, as if the viewer were just another friend following him into the deep end. The observational focus makes the joyous and saddening moments all the more affecting. Oslo, 31. August sits sidecar to an obviously charismatic and talented man overwhelmed by his own assumptions. This process is a slow disintegration rather and a sudden nuclear fallout. For Anders, emotional downfall becomes a whisper, not a bang.
Finally, a little business to attend to. I have two more dispatches to file, but wanted to briefly comment on my picks for the festival awards given out tomorrow afternoon. So many films have gained and lost momentum over the last two weeks, so my picks represent a mixture of my own preference and whom I think carries the most “drive” going into the homestretch.
For Best Screenplay, it comes down to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s serpentine script for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid and the Bike, a deceptively skilled mixture of character and nuance. The Jury Prize is also a tossup, but I’m guessing Michel Hazanavicius’s joyous classic-Hollywood pastiche The Artist.
For Best Actress, it’s something of a two-way race between Emily Browning of Sleeping Beauty and Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I would bet on the latter. Best Actor is a bit more difficult to predict. It could go to Jean Dujardin (The Artist) or Sean Penn (This Must Be the Place), but Antonio Banderas’s (The Skin I Live In) electric performance as a conflicted plastic surgeon is both sly and showy without being corny.
Best Director will undoubtedly go to Terrence Malick for his towering The Tree of Life, a film that’s just too far out there for any kind of consensus with anyone on the Croisette. If there’s any justice, the Camera d’Or for Best First Film will go to Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin’s tension-brimming powder keg of a debut.
Now comes the shocker. I think Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which stunned me and many other people into genre submission a few nights back, has a real chance at winning the Palme d’Or. There’s a zipping buzz about the film right now, a genuine love by audiences and critics alike, something unparalleled by any other film this year. Which would leave Aki Kaurismäki’s incredibly familiar crowd-pleaser Le Havre as your Grand Prix winner.
One final note: If Drive actually wins the Palme d’Or it will certainly be one of those massive upsets we’ll be talking about for years to come. I can only hope.
Palme d’Or: Drive
Grand Prix: Le Havre
Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Best Screenplay: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Best Actor: Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In
Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Camera d’Or: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Jury Prize: The Artist