Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol) – the protagonist of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Ahlat Agaci (The Wild Pear Tree; Turkish) – comes home after college. It’s a big thing in his smallish town. Sinan wants to be a writer, but he wants, even more, to escape these “narrow-minded people.” He complains to a friend, “If I was a dictator, I’d drop an atom bomb on this place.” The film follows Sinan through a series of precisely calibrated conversations – with his parents, grandparents, a councillor he approaches for a loan to publish his book, a girl he knew in school. The lines are simultaneously mundane and profound, rooted in the locale and yet universal. Holding forth on the inflexibility of the Koran, Sinan’s imam friend offers the analogy that builders have to adhere to the architect’s plans. If everyone “interpreted” the blueprints their own way, there would be chaos. I was reminded of similar discussions I’ve been part of.
After the screening, some viewers complained that there was too much talk, not enough cinema – save for stray bits (the snow-covered final portions, the dream-image of a baby covered with ants). But note, also, the scene where the camera observes a kissing couple from a tree, like a curious bird. In this superb film (as in his other works), Ceylan strives to put the “audio” back in this audiovisual medium. This isn’t dialogue that… explains. It’s dialogue that replaces event, and takes us right into this place and its people. There are “events,” sure – like the heartbreaking scene with Sinan’s father’s dog. But the father, a teacher, is revealed through what he says. “There was a time when teachers were allowed to stray from the curriculum.” The effect is accumulative. And Sinan is revealed the most through a hilarious interaction with an author, who slowly loses his patience with this whiner who comes with a sense of entitlement. The author sees through Sinan, that he is not better than everyone else.
And yet, as a writer, I identified with Sinan when he complains about people who prefer novels they can draw simple morals from. The author calls him an “incurably obsessed monomaniac,” but then, you could say that about many creative people. About two-thirds into this three-hour movie (par for the course for Ceylan), we get a turning point that changes Sinan – and the film’s design finally clicks. The various conversational threads cohere into a tapestry about fathers and sons. Sinan sees he is not all that different from his father, whom he’d labelled a loser. This final stretch is among the most purely emotional passages in Ceylan’s oeuvre – my eyes welled up. The father’s dream project is the well he’s been digging to turn the area green, and it mirrors Sinan’s dream of writing a novel. His words towards the end are something every dreamer needs to hear: “If I’d have been proved right, it would have been good… But it’s okay.”
Asia Argento, presenting the first award (Best Actress, which went to Samal Yeslyamova, for Ayka) made a fierce confession about being raped by Harvey Weinstein at Cannes. “This festival was his hunting ground.”
In The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam told the story of a narcissistic radio-jockey whose actions result in a commoner losing his mind and believing he’s part of the Arthurian legends. The long-in-the-making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote can be seen as a sort of companion piece. (A title card says, “And now, after more than 25 years in the making… and unmaking… a Terry Gilliam film.”) It pushes the madness further, mixing past and present, fact and fiction. Late-period Gilliam is its own genre: I call it “whimsical what-the-fuck-ery.” The Man Who Killed Don Quixote fits squarely in. The whimsy is overpowering, and a lot of viewers kept going, “What the fuck!” A line by a movie producer made me laugh out loud: “Try to keep up with the plot, man!” He could be talking to the audience.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was the festival’s official closing film – but I caught it a day earlier, at a press screening. (Despite several high-profile disappointments, the queue was a mile long. I guess that’s when you know you love cinema – after 10 days, your eyes are still shining with hope.) It begins wonderfully, with a frustrated filmmaker named Toby (Adam Driver), who is taking his second stab at a Don Quixote movie. (The first was during his film-school days.) We get it. Making a movie is like tilting at windmills, a thought echoed in the best-known song from Man of La Mancha, the Broadway musical based on Cervantes’s cracked hero: “To dream the impossible dream… To run where the brave dare not go…” This madness – this movie-madness – sticks to the film like dye.
Gilliam stages several stunning scenes out of our darkest fairytale dreams, with the equivalents of giants and hostage princesses and evil queens. My favourite stretch is the one in a makeshift movie theatre, where a tattered bolt of cloth serves as the screen, and “Don Quixote” (a marvellous Jonathan Pryce, though Driver is excellent as well) functions as the speakers. This is the point in the story where reality and illusion begin to merge, and the image is at once literal and breathtakingly surreal. The problem is that the glue holding these scenes together runs all over the place. Like most of Gilliam’s latter-day work, Don Quixote gets an A for ambition, a lower grade for everything else – but I concur with a journalist-friend who later said, “I was exhausted, but I never wanted to leave.”
I am writing this on Saturday, the last day of the festival, when they screen all the Competition entries again. You’ve inevitably missed a few, so it’s a great way to catch up. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman isn’t as imaginative as Chi-Raq, but it’s a terrific genre piece (an undercover cop story) that makes powerful statements about race. Hirokazu Kore-Eda Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters; Japanese) is a profoundly moving study of a very happy family that slowly unravels — it makes you think hard about the ties that bind us. I didn’t care at all for Yann Gonzalez’s Un Cocteau Dans Le Coeur (Knife + Heart; French), about a lesbian who makes gay porn and finds that her actors are being killed off by a psycho wielding a dildo-knife. This would-be love child of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma is undone by its artsy pretensions.
And in the evening, I watched the live telecast of the closing ceremony of “unequivocally the best festival on the planet” (as Gary Oldman said on stage, before presenting an award). Jury president Cate Blanchett wore something with a big red bow that covered her back – she looked ready to be placed under a Christmas tree, and the dress was perhaps a wink that she was going to be handing out presents. (If there’s another explanation for that outfit, I’d like to hear it.) The men on stage made a stranger fashion statement, with tousled hair. Call it show-business casual. And unless my eyes deceived me, emcee Édouard Baer didn’t even bother to do up the top button of his shirt. His tie clung on for dear life.
Spike Lee got the Grand Prix for his savagely entertaining BlacKkKlansman. When he came up on stage, he said he was going to invoke a Peter Weir film that reflects the times we live in.
The scent of protest was strong in the air, so I wondered if the awards would end up tokenistic – a sort of face-saving for, say, the woeful percentage of women filmmakers who have been invited to present their films at the festival. And Asia Argento, presenting the first award (Best Actress, which went to Samal Yeslyamova, for Ayka) made a fierce confession about being raped by Harvey Weinstein at Cannes. “This festival was his hunting ground.” But apart from the Jury Prize for Nadine Labaki’s cutesy piece of poverty porn (Capharnaüm), almost every winner was worthy. The Camera d’Or went to Lukas Dhont (Girl), Best Screenplay was shared between Alice Rohrwacher (Lazzaro Felice) and Nader Saeivar and Jafar Panahi (3 Faces). Jean-Luc Godard received a Special Palme d’Or (awarded for the first time in the festival’s history) for Le livre d’image, for consistently pushing the boundaries of cinema – a fact no one, Masculine or féminine, can deny.
Spike Lee got the Grand Prix for his savagely entertaining BlacKkKlansman. When he came up on stage, he said he was going to invoke a Peter Weir film that reflects the times we live in. I thought he was talking about The Truman Show and its stage-managed “reality,” but he named The Year of Living Dangerously. The remaining awards were richly deserved, and went to films that worked as cinema first: Marcello Fonte (Best Actor for Dogman), Pawel Pawlikowski (Best Director for his stunning Cold War) and Hirokazu Kore-eda (Palme d’Or for Shoplifters). It isn’t that these films weren’t political. They weren’t overtly, award-baitingly so. After all, the personal is political too.