Sex, Violence, Pretty Clothes and a Long, Cold Winter Come to Cannes

Cannes 2014: The competition gets serious with “Winter Sleep,” stylish with “Saint Laurent” and pulpy with “Wild Tales”

Do we have a new leader in the clubhouse in the race for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival?

Some have suggested as much after the premiere of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s haunting drama “Winter Sleep,” which took place on Friday.  If they’re right, though, it’s safe to say that it would be the boldest and most adventurous selection since “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in 2010.

“Winter Sleep” is a slow, meditative, meandering work that walks a fine line between mesmerizing and unendurable – a film made up of one long conversation after another over the course of a brutal winter in a snowbound village in the Anatolia region of Turkey.

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At one point a character talks about how a “well-planned life” isn’t interesting, and Ceylan has no interest in using conventional narrative techniques to make his film feel “well-planned.” A master of composition, he sinks into the details of everyday existence and the often maddening rhythms of conversations that run in circles as the characters puzzle over matters of evil, conscience and simply getting along with each other.

Ceylan has been to Cannes many times before, winning the Grand Jury Prize for “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” in 2011 and “Distant” in 200, the best director award for “Three Monkeys” in 2008  and the FIPRESCI award for “Climates” in 2006.

“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” his last film, was about a crime investigation, which gave it a narrative thrust; “Winter Sleep,” on the other hand, is more a work of stasis, of small changes taking place incrementally at a pace that led to a steady procession of walkouts at a Saturday afternoon screening.

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At three hours and 16 minutes, this film doesn’t reward patience, it demands it. But for viewers who are patient enough, “Winter Sleep” is rich, subtle and emotionally wrenching – even if it can be maddening along the way. A Palme win would require a jury with a taste for the forbidding, but Jane Campion‘s panel could conceivably be that group.

The other main-competition screenings on Saturday began with Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” a two-and-a-half-hour biographical fantasia on French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. In some days, it is a conventional biopic that touches all the major points in the style icon’s story: his artistic successes, his relationships, his personal trials, his death …

The competition’s other big biopic, “Mr. Turner,” is far less concerned with nailing the high points of its subject’s Wikipedia entry, far more interested in fleeting glimpses than Key Moments. By comparison, “Saint Laurent” is at times a fairly straightforward, naturally stylish and inevitably overlong journey through a life of glamour and excess, the latter mostly of the sexual and drug-induced variety.

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But Bonello is after more than that, and “Saint Laurent” grows bolder and stranger as it goes along, eventually hitting a kind of rapturous insanity as it jumps from the designer’s last days to his most glamorous and glorious fashion show.

There’s a dark, sublime nuttiness to the final stretches of the film, making it feel as if Yves Saint Laurent and Bertrand Bonello are as perfect a marriage of style and subject as J.M.W. Turner and Mike Leigh.

And speaking of nuttiness and insanity, Saturday’s other competition entry was Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales,” whose title is nothing if not truth in advertising.

Sony Pictures Classics announced its deal to distribute the film as the festival began, but this is the pulpier side of SPC (which distributed the two “Raid” films along with its usually tonier arthouse fare). Made up of six different stories full of violence, vomit and misbehavior, it’s a proudly tasteless dose of black humor, raucous and silly and entertaining enough to make it a real Cannes crowd-pleaser.

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(The question of what it’s doing in the main competition rather than the Midnight Movies section, however, remains unanswered.)

Szifron is trying to pull off something tricky here, wringing laughs out of subjects as dead serious as a hit-and-run accident and a young bride who discovers her husband’s infidelity during her wedding reception. He usually gets to those laughs (though the hit-and-run story is the least effective of the bunch), succeeding with energy and excess and a good sense of how to escalate things to the level of comic absurdity.

Pedro Almodovar is one of the film’s producers, and Szifron has a long way to go because his bad taste can resonate the way Almodovar’s does. But “Wild Tales” is a spirited start that could attract an audience – albeit it one drawn more from the midnight-movie crowd than the arthouse aficionados.