No Hollywood studio marketing campaign can rival the hysteria created by a single big screening at the Cannes Film Festival. The newest edition demonstrated that day three, when thousands of eager cinephiles and industry acolytes mobbed the entrance of the Lumière Theater, eager to nab a seat for a slow-moving, Turkish drama that ran over three hours.
The movie, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep," would nab the festival's Palme d'Or a little more than a week later. But even before this hefty endorsement, Ceylan was a big name in Cannes. His understated storytelling last nabbed him a runner-up prize at the festival for the procedural drama "Once Upon a Time In Anatolia," and his earlier features have won several prizes there as well. Ceylan's work takes a steadily involving, almost hypnotic approach to narrative that rewards viewers for playing along. But last Friday, in the moments before "Winter Sleep" began, audiences were doing the exact opposite.
"It's a madhouse out there!" exclaimed an industry colleague, joining me in one of the few remaining seats in the theater, high in the balcony. Peering down at the screen, we were some of the lucky ones; countless others were turned away. Sweaty, breathless and unbelievably exhausted, we settled in for 196 minutes of talk, sweeping visuals and heavy themes. In any other setting, these conditions would have been lunacy. But this was Cannes. It's something else.
Few recent festival editions have justified the insanity like this one. For its sheer diversity alone, this was a great Cannes, offering something for everyone who loves movies; more than that, it blended a healthy mixture of traditional artistry with boundary-pushing innovation. Jean-Luc Godard's freewheeling "Goodbye to Language" tickled the sweet spot of audiences hip to his playful musings on culture and daring manipulation of 3-D technology. Rising star Xavier Dolan achieved his best work to date with the intense family drama "Mommy." Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan" contained a masterful look at the grim challenges of modern Russian society. The festival showcased a lot of great performances as well, including Timothy Spall in a nuanced turn as the painter JMW Turner in Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" and Julianne Moore riffing on the vanity of aging Hollywood actors in David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars."
All of the aforementioned talent won prizes. Of particular note, the savvy jury led by Jane Campion split the runner-up prize between Godard and Dolan, the competition's oldest and youngest entrants, respectively. It was an apt statement on heralding the old with the new. Godard's continuing approach to radical expression through film provided the ultimate validation of placing faith in great filmmakers; Dolan, a 25-year-old former child star who has already made several mature, involving works, stands as proof that the movies aren't exclusively reliant on the old guard to keep the medium's quality in check.
Above all else, however, there was Ceylan, whose triumph reflected both his command of cinema and a willingness to top himself each time out. "Winter Sleep," with its alternately moody and provocative tale of a neurotic landowner and hotel owner at odds with the happiness of his wife and tenant, has more thematic weight than any of his previous efforts. At the same time, it's fully in line with the patient, textured movies leading up to it. At Cannes, the "Winter Sleep" experience consumed more than half a day—taking into account the hustle beforehand—which is ages in festival time, but the standing ovation at the end reflected just how much it was worth the effort. Terrific on every level, "Winter Sleep" matches its delicate performances with rich imagery and somehow manages to never, ever get boring. Even when a colleague nearby me got up to stretch his legs halfway through, his eyes remained glued to the screen.
Our position in the balcony, looming high above thousands of seats, was not unlike that of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), the main character in "Winter Sleep," who resides at the top of a hill that allows him to look down on his helpless tenants. With less greedy implications, Cannes certainly encourages a similar feeling of superiority among its audiences. After two weeks at the festival, the elitism is infectious.
At least, that's the idea, but it only works out when the movies are strong. Fortunately, this was one of the best programs in years. Among the highlights shut out of the awards, the Argentinean satire "Wild Tales" unleashed a welcome dose of black comedy through its blistering portrait of Latin American society in six cartoonish shorts. The ever-reliable Dardenne brothers brought another effective slice of social realism with "Two Days, One Night," which features Marion Cotillard's best performance as a woman struggling to save her pathetic job. Though many pundits thought the Dardennes had a shot at winning the Palme for a third time, these filmmakers don't need any further accolades to confirm their standing as some of the most dependably satisfying filmmakers out there.
Outside of the main competition, one could find an even more exciting range of options. Lisandro Alonso's "Jauja" stars Viggo Mortensen in a delectably strange fable about a man searching for his missing daughter in 19th century Argentina. A mesmerizing fantasy shot in Academy ratio with vibrant colors in every frame, "Jauja" transforms from a literal search for utopia into a sensorial allegory for the same quest, as well as a touching portrait of growing up and leaving home behind.
Like Ceylan's movie, "Jauja" offers immense payoff for anyone willing to invest in its mysteries. The same allure can be found in "The Tribe," which won the top prize of the Critics' Week section. Ukranian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's dark tale of an all-deaf boarding school is exclusively told through sign language, and yet manages to make its narrative perfectly understandable to all viewers. But it's also a relentlessly dour affair that doesn't take its gimmick for granted.
With a similarly inventive spirit, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's "White God" follows the plight of a dog separated from his young human owner and forced to adopt to life in the streets. Rather than devolving into a "Black Beauty" stunt with mutts, the movie presents a gritty portrait of canine perseverance that actually manages to let its main animal take on a starring role. As with these other movies, there's nothing else like it, and it never makes things easy. (The movie justly won the annual "Palme Dog," though Roxy, the star of the Godard movie, presented fierce competition.)
Aside from being filled with different kinds of cinema, Cannes generates an urgency surrounding the process of discovery. As Anthony Kaufman reported in these parts ahead of the festival, the American market for foreign language cinema has dipped to an all-time low, and anything that suggests a major commercial risk has been deemed anathema by many of the people with the resources to easily give it life after Cannes. "Winter Sleep" may have generated headlines around the world, but it does not yet have U.S. distribution.
As they have for years, today's audiences struggle to focus on anything that demands their attention for too long. The Cannes lineup included many critical responses to this conundrum. Godard assails it in "Goodbye to Language" with his wry shot of hands passing a pair of smartphones back and forth; in Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars," the movie business is a vain, artless place. Olivier Assayas' intelligent portrait "Clouds of Sils Marie" includes a merciless stab at the dominance of blockbusters. Collectively, they sound the alarm about a culture engineered to communicate faster than ever and married to instant gratification, which has led to a business model designed to complement just that.
Ceylan relishes the opposite approach, slowing down the story and considering a range of creative possibilities through a careful navigation of mood and images. Only one film festival has the power to bring that kind of unpopular approach to global awareness. As the world keeps moving forward, and the future of cinema remains an open-ended question, Cannes may very well be its greatest hope.