Cannes 2023: About Dry Grasses, The Sweet East
Cannes official competition has grandfathered-in filmmakers—Pedro Almodóvar, the Dardennes, Arnaud Desplechin—who will keep being included no matter what, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose every feature since 2002’s Distant has premiered here, is definitely among them. After receiving the Grand Prix for 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan introduced his “three-plus-hours only” mode with 2014’s Winter Sleep and 2018’s The Wild Pear Tree, and reception was what you might call “respectfully muted.” Outside the festival, his reputation seems to have fallen off: it’s a long way from the 2007 Coen brothers short World Cinema, in which a cowboy played by Josh Brolin goes to see Ceylan’s 2006 Climates and emerges enthusiastically proclaiming that there’s “a hell of a lot of truth” in that.
Seeing the 197-minute running time for About Dry Grasses, I could anticipate the precise contours of what I was getting into and, depending upon your perspective, Ceylan either does or doesn’t disappoint by staying true to form. Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), a teacher doing mandatory time in the rural provinces, is firmly in the lineage of Ceylan men who think of themselves as soulful intellectuals but turn out to be more just prickly assholes. Like Ceylan himself (as well as the autobiographical character he played in Climates), Samet’s a still photographer and, like Winter Sleep, Dry Grasses takes place against an overwhelmingly snowy landscape (said grasses make a last-second cameo). The scope frame is emphasized by the slight distortion of a routinely deployed wide-angle lens; you get the feeling Ceylan would shoot everything in 2.66 if it wouldn’t make projection a specialty pain-in-the-ass.
The plot, such as it is, finds Samet alternately at odds with just about everyone in the small town—his adolescent student Sevim (Ece Bagci), roommate Kenan (Musab Ekeci), potential love interest Nuray (Merve Dizdar)—in consistently logorrheic back-and-forths. Because it’s in Ceylan’s nature, it’s no surprise when one plotline is discarded midway through to go in favor of full-on philosophical exchanges; all of a sudden Samet is sitting in the candle-lantern-lit dark, exchanging Johnnie Walker Red and thoughts about honor with two other men. In Ceylan’s world, every night has the potential to be a slightly less sodden The Iceman Cometh. Later, Semet will sit and verbally duel with Nuray about, among other things, how history reminds him of “the weariness of hope,” like My Night at Maud’s without all the Jansenism.
There’s infinite dialogue and yet seemingly not enough, as entire scenes and plot developments feel like they’re missing entirely, perhaps due to editorial excisions for running time purposes than by written design. About 150 minutes in there’s precisely one surprising moment, when Ceylan breaks the fourth wall in a way that’s unprecedented for him, then it’s back to business as usual. If it sounds like I’m mocking his pretensions…well, I am a little bit, but also admire his firmness of purpose and experience the films goes going down smoothly despite their length in an easy listening way (a description I’m sure he would not like to hear!). Exteriors are always immaculately shot in the ways you’d expect from a former still photographer with a taste for epic landscapes, and the interiors are equally precise in their compositions, the better to render palatable dialogue driven by an earnest conviction in the importance of these kinds of abstract conversations about belief systems. Ceylan is a real believer in a kind of arthouse cinema that barely exists anymore; it’s “vibey,” only the vibe is severe and late ’60s, and when it’s entirely gone I’ll miss it.
Cinematographer Sean Price Williams’s first feature as a solo director, The Sweet East, is more plausibly describable as “vibey”—assuming “American, dumb and probably really pissed off” is a vibe of sorts (which it absolutely is). Directors’ Fortnight executive director Julien Rejl took to the stage to introduce the premiere by announcing that The Sweet East shows an America shattered into pieces, and that the film “doesn’t put the pieces back together again”—a portentousness Williams, looking every bit the American director come to conquer Cannes in a red tracksuit and American flag shutter shade glasses, swiftly deflated in his intro. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “Maybe it’s better in pieces.”
Semi-inspired by (among many other things) Terry Southern’s Candy, The Sweet East takes place in a picaresque-enabling America, represented here by the tristate area and Washington D.C., where everyone has an equal opportunity to be an entertaining/quotable scumbag regardless of political orientation. Inscrutable Lillian (Talia Ryder) hits the road and floats through a variety of irreconcilable milieus that make for a tableau of the mental-garbage-pilled American present: a hapless Antifa collective led by rich kid (and self-proclaimed “artivist”) Caleb (Earl Cave), thence to white supremacy as represented by Poe-fixated college professor Lawrence (Simon Rex), over to a pair of black filmmakers working on a revisionist period piece (Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri), and so on across the ideological spectrum.
Williams and screenwriter Nick Pinkerton are longtime NYC mutual circle friendly acquaintances, so it was impossible for me not to sometimes hear the dialogue in Nick’s voice, which it’d be cliched but accurate to characterize as a “mellifluous baritone”; it’s to the ensemble’s credit that their performances are truly differentiated rather than a univocal hivemind merely speaking at different timbres. (This goes especially for best-of-show Simon Rex, who after Red Rocket is staying on track to be one of America’s ten best working male actors.) It was also hard not to think of the movie in relationship to Pinkerton and Williams’s friend Michael Bilandic, whose work displays much the same voracious enthusiasm for going outside and finding every weirdo possible, then going inside and doing the same on the internet.
But The Sweet East is definitely its own thing, greater than the sum of its easily identifiable parts, which include Sean’s visual sense—here also operating as one of two cinematographers, in a recognizable mode where an instinct for chaotic, fast-moving handheld imagery conflicts with, and occasionally abets, moments of great, sometimes unconventional beauty—and Nick’s ridiculously profuse vocabulary, which manifests with characteristic regularity. A lot of credit is due to editor Stephen Gurewitz, who’s whittled and synthesized an evident mountain of footage into a final product that has consistent good energy—of an antisocial kind, maybe, but one committed to stepping out and seeing what kind of trouble can be found, even if only to ultimately reject it all. (Its depiction of a moderate-size union set is also fairly vicious and presumably informed by personal venom.) Ironically, for a film whose most consistent recurring point is that Europeans are a little too quick to be condescending about America as “a young country,” The Sweet East is exactly the kind of film that will play especially well with Europeans, even if it doesn’t claim to show How The US Lives Now and is mostly an anthology of shit that’s funny (I would decline to ascribe a more detailed logline thesis to its social portrait and don’t see that as a weakness). It slightly runs out of steam but so close towards the finish that it didn’t diminish my appreciation much—and I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t nice to see a bunch of NYC mutuals take to the stage at Cannes and win over Europe, or at least one auditorium of it, for a night.