Running nearly 200 minutes, “About Dry Grasses” (or “Kuru Otlar Üstüne”) is the norm for Turkish virtuoso Nuri Bilge Ceylan. He returns, yet again, to the icy chill of his Anatolian-set Palme d’Or winner “Winter Sleep,” for a story that thrashes with similar frustrations with power in the grand social scheme. However, he weaves this theme into his background tapestry, favoring instead a chatty and often uncomfortable story of a small-town art teacher, his 12-year-old student, and an accusation of impropriety that may be false on the surface, but it is rooted in the truths that the camera sees.
Where ‘Winter Sleep’ adapted Russian greats like Chekhov and Dostoyevsky – it draws on both ‘The Wife’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ – ‘About Dry Grasses’ sounds like a spiritual descendant of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, at least in its usage of point of view. Ceylan’s novelistic approach to cinema could perhaps find no more fitting partner than Nabokov’s lyricism, the kind that is at once cinematic in spirit, yet wholly difficult to adapt for the screen.
Ceylan’s latest takes an equally imaginative and poetic approach to everything from dull and mundane to downright sordid, filtering an unsavory tale of a man beset by rural frustrations through a surprisingly personal lens, one that keeps things often intriguing, sometimes electric and wholly inspiring. It is only towards the end of the 3 hour 17 minute film that the weight of its running time is felt, at which point anything approaching emotional oppression becomes added emphasis – an exclamation point at the end of the narcissistic screed of the its protagonist.
The first image we see emerging from the empty, icy white background is Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu), a middle-aged art teacher and part-time photographer who makes his way through what appears to be a rural wasteland, to begin his fourth compulsory residency year teaching rural 8th graders in the dead of winter. He comes off at first as a nice, likable, and new (though not entirely “new”) addition to the list of teachers who have been around much longer than he has, including his roommate Kenan (Musab Ekici). Like many of the other teachers, they live in one of the tiny buildings scattered around the school, while students arrive from nearby towns in eastern Anatolia. One student, lively and boisterous Sevim (Ece Bağcı), is clearly Samet’s favorite, between the gifts he gives her in secret and the fact that he calls her and her closest friends just to answer questions in class. If other students dare to point this out, she replies rudely.
As Sevim, Bağcı is faced with the immense challenge of playing both the crisp and mysterious two-dimensional conception of Samet and a more nuanced and realistic performance that the camera captures in fleeting glimpses, in the rare moments depicting the psychological impact of the their own dynamics, away from Samet’s presence. It is a captivating performance from such a young actress, made all the more stunning by her interaction with Celiloğlu, which goes from charming to fiery and frightening in an instant. However, equally intriguing from a cinematic point of view is the way Celiloğlu controls this part of Samet after letting it fly away, taking it back and making it a new part of the character’s personality, as if each ferocious outburst added a pop of color a la his complexion.
Ceylan’s interest lies not in making the kind of film where a teacher blatantly crosses several lines, but the kind that floats cautiously along those lines while Samet appears to blur them. As much as “About Dry Grasses” remains plot-driven in its first half – the length of an average feature film to begin with – it is also a detailed portrait of the kind of person who can deftly manipulate those around them, while maintaining a confident level of deniability. In that aforementioned first half a torturous charge is delivered to Samet through third and fourth parties. He is unfamiliar with what he is accused of, but fearfully suspects that his domestic student may be involved in some way, and adjusts his behavior towards her accordingly, punishing and playing the victim, thus providing a window into what kind of ache. is-me self-pity to which a character of his fragile temperament might immediately turn.
However, Ceylan is not satisfied with containing Samet and his existence in this specific scenario. After all, the lives of predators and victims (and people in general) don’t stop when an accusation arises. From then on, much of the film is about his and Kenan’s friendship with an English teacher at a nearby school, Nuray (Merve Dizdar), and Samet’s perception of their triangular dynamic. Whether or not Samet is a groomer, the tendencies he displays must surely manifest themselves elsewhere, in different, more socially acceptable ways: how could that be?
Ceylan is a master of long, languid takes, in which the constant, suppressed energy of the camera – in wide or medium shots – allows for a deft and often precise construction of moments of passionate exchange. The length of shots of him, lasting several minutes at a time, give each character the chance to create a world of their own, an opportunity Samet no doubt makes use of.
However, the worlds that clearly exist in the lives of Nuray, Sevim, Kenan and so on are worlds that the camera has no access to. He sees hints of other people, but gets trapped by Samet’s perspective, which also takes in Ceylan’s fully realized aesthetic swings: few directors are better at infusing the frame with enormity and poignancy by suddenly shifting their camera or cutting quickly from wide shots oblique to extraordinarily composed frontal close-ups – and turns them into stylistic capitulations, as if the very fabric of the film is warping around Samet’s ability to move through the world as he sees fit.
Of course, Samet is but an extension of Ceylan (and his wife and co-writer Ebru Ceylan, and their writing partner Akın Aksu). Ceylan’s previous works have long featured provincial figures and artists moving to big cities – a reflection of his own history – but Samet is a former resident of Istanbul, and the frustrations informing his indifferent actions were born at least in part from having walked away from what he calls “civilization” and going to a place and a people he detests. Even the intimacy he’s able to forge with other people ends up being wielded as a weapon, and so “About Dry Grasses” can’t help but feel like Ceylan asking what could happen to him if he, and not a hypothetical person, was thrust into these circumstances.
Like Ceylan, Samet’s keen eye for photography is central to his perspective, and the film frequently detours into photo-essay territory, depicting the way he captures the world around him. The narrative is so tied to his perspective, despite its occasional hints at a larger physical and emotional world, that at one point, it almost doubles back to expose its own artifice: an ironic depiction of Samet’s hiding and hides around other people, even in moments that seem genuine and generous. The film also positions image-making as an act of narcissism – introspection in the form of fierce self-criticism – but an act through which fears and frustrations can be easily found and easily perceived.
To call a work like this “self-indulgent” would be no more than a compliment, as it embodies human tendencies towards self-indulgence in a way few others have in recent memory – not the indulgence of wealth or luxurious opulence, but the indulgences that exist despite their absence, in cities like the one Samet reluctantly finds himself in. It’s about the indulgences of power in minor, corrosive ways, also enacted by characters whose depth and richness spill across the screen in vivid hues.
Ceylan’s is the cinema of what is seen, as well as the cinema of what one of the film’s characters rightly calls “beyond the visible”, when discussing his thoughts on memory and religion. Your mileage may vary, but “About Dry Grasses” is among the most brilliantly daunting works presented at Cannes in recent years, with a core so rotten that any hint of virtue or even normalcy in the camera’s peripheral vision becomes a tragedy unto itself. , simply to be ignored.
“About Dry Grasses” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.