Triet, Haynes, Ceylan

Sandra Hüller in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

If critics handed out the awards in Cannes, we’d have a front-runner for Best Actress. Sandra Hüller, a commanding presence on German stages for the past two decades, first drew international attention when she won a good handful of awards, including a Silver Bear in Berlin, for her performance as a student who believes she’s demonically possessed in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006). Her major breakthrough, though, came with Toni Erdmann (2016).

When Maren Ade’s portrait of a father and daughter’s rocky relationship premiered in competition in Cannes, just about everyone assumed it was a shoo-in for the Palme d’Or—or at least for some sort of recognition for Ade, Hüller, or her costar, Peter Simonischek. Everyone, that is, except for George Miller and his jury, who sent Toni Erdmann home empty-handed.

Surveying the grids where publications are tabulating ratings from critics in Cannes this year—, the International Cinephile Society,Ioncinema, and Screen—we see that Hüller stars in two clear favorites, Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest and Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, which Neon has just picked up for distribution in North America.

Anatomy of a Fall

In Triet’s fourth feature, Hüller plays Sandra, a respected author trying to give an interview in a chalet perched high in the French Alps, where she lives with her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), a less successful writer, and their son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who has been blind since he was struck by a car when he was four. Samuel is blasting music and hammering away up on the roof, so Sandra cuts the interview short and decides to take a nap while Daniel goes out for a walk with the dog. When he returns, he discovers the lifeless body of his father in the snow. Accident, suicide, or murder?

For the French authorities, Sandra is a prime suspect, and what follows is “a gripping and gratifyingly rich drama,” writes Jon Frosch in the Hollywood Reporter: “part legal procedural, part portrait of a complicated woman, part snapshot of a marriage on the brink and part coming-of-age narrative. Anatomy of a Fall is, above all, about the essential unknowability of a person, of a relationship, and the perilous impossibility of trying to understand—whether it’s a child puzzling over his parents or a courtroom straining to make sense of an inscrutable suspect.” Hüller, “Triet’s perfect accomplice,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey, “seizes the day with a wonderful performance, assembling the type of 360º character portrait Liv Ullmann used to manage for Bergman: she’s an absolute magician at shading.”

At the Playlist, Elena Lazic finds that Triet’s “breathtakingly intelligent and subtly perverse masterpiece takes the long way through the cold and the snow to address, in nuanced but never ambiguous terms, the ineffable and irreducible mystery at the heart of deep relationships—between two partners, between parents and their children, between words and the world.” Catherine Bray, writing for Little White Lies, particularly admires the screenplay by Triet and her partner, Arthur Harari, noting that “to write uncertainty in a way that keeps the viewer tense as a coiled spring throughout a hefty two-and-half-hour runtime is a rare gift.”

May December

Netflix has just picked up Todd Haynes’s May December for a cool eleven million, and according to Deadline, this is “far and away the big deal of Cannes so far.” Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, a television star who has just landed a meaty role in an independent film. She’ll be playing Gracie (Julianne Moore), a woman who, in the mid-1990s, when she was in her mid-thirties, married, and a mom, was caught making out with a thirteen-year-old, Joe, in the back of the pet shop where they worked. Gracie was arrested and forced to give birth to her and Joe’s baby in prison. Their story was tabloid fodder for weeks.

Two decades on, Elizabeth is spending time in Gracie and Joe’s (Charles Melton) cozy suburban home—for research. “Elizabeth can smell dysfunction like a Method bloodhound,” writes Charles Bramesco at the Playlist, “and not unlike meddlesome interloper Terence Stamp in Teorema, she takes evident pleasure in pushing the buttons of all those around her through offhanded seduction. Actors, as we all know, are bottomless pits of careerist self-interest, and this one sees real people as little more than material for an alchemical process Haynes nevertheless takes seriously.” As David Rooney puts it in the Hollywood Reporter, this film is “not the best advertisement for the humanity of actors.”

May December is “very funny and light on its feet, but it’s also a deeply uncomfortable movie,” finds Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “Nobody has any boundaries in this film, which means everyone around them has to face the consequences, an endless cycle of abuse in all its forms. The film is both humane and scathing. Which is why Haynes’s stylistic treatment of the subject, veering between noirish gusto and flights of snark, winds up being so touching.” It’s a “twisty, tricky drama, shot through with dark, glittering threads of comedy,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, and dispatching to Filmmaker, Blake Williams writes that Haynes’s “campy, provocative, and sexy May December was the most fun I’ve had at this year’s festival, and stands as the filmmaker’s strongest work since Far from Heaven (2002), if not Safe (1995).”

About Dry Grasses

The word fun is probably not going to appear in many reviews of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses. But in Sight and Sound, James Lattimer suggests that the film “arrives at exactly the right time, in the year of a closely-run, ideologically charged Turkish election that has inevitably thrown up questions about the future course of the country. Ceylan’s wordy, quietly unpredictable ninth feature is all about taking the pulse of the nation, albeit in more oblique fashion, as the travails of a teacher in the vast snowy landscape of eastern Anatolia eventually open out into a portrait of Turkey being pulled in many different directions at once that modulates the intimate and the expansive with consummate ease.”

The teacher is Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), whose plans to return to Istanbul may be thwarted by accusations of inappropriate behavior with one of his students. Nuray (Merve Dizdar), a teacher in a nearby village, would be more in his league, but Samet expresses little interest until Kenan (Musab Ekici), his housemate, does. For Jay Weissberg at the Film Verdict, the “undisputed highlight” of About Dry Grasses is “a dinner sequence with Nuray and Samet where the discourse delves into politics and the individual’s responsibility to society. The performances are riveting and the points scored make one want to re-watch the scene multiple times to fully appreciate not just what’s said but how it’s all constructed.”

About Dry Grasses “plays like an adaptation of some lost, weighty nineteenth-century Russian novel of ideas beloved by mid-twentieth-century existentialists and largely forgotten until Ceylan repurposed it,” suggests Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter. “By chapters a bristling classroom drama, a provocative ethics lesson, a bitterly conflicted love triangle, and an unsparing anatomy of an everyday misanthrope,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety, the film “finds Ceylan’s gifts as a dramatist in their finest form since 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.” Ceylan is “a real believer in a kind of arthouse cinema that barely exists anymore,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. About Dry Grasses is “‘vibey,’ only the vibe is severe and late ’60s, and when it’s entirely gone I’ll miss it.”

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