Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up: the film that is currently the bookies' favorite for festival gold: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep."
The director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkish, 55 years old). A photographer's filmmaker -- with a BSc in electrical engineering, to boot -- Ceylan has been hovering around the world cinema A-list for over a decade, though his expansive 2011 feature "Once Upon a Time.in Anatolia" plainly sealed his place there. Having developed an interest in film in his twenties, he made his first short, "Cocoon," in 1995; it played at Cannes. His debut feature,"Kasaba," followed two years later; "Winter Sleep" is his seventh. A follower of Bresson, Bergman, Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Ozu, he favors long takes and still panoramas that complement his signature themes of emotional estrangement and social alienation. He's flirted with genre filmmaking, but is still unlkely to make a romantic comedy any time soon.
The talent: Leading man Haluk Bilginer has a diverse international CV: in addition to his Turkish work, he spent four years on British soap "EastEnders," recently appeared in "W.E." (as Mohamed Al-Fayed) and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," and will next be seen in Jon Stewart's "Rosewater." The rest of the cast, including Demet Akbag and Melisa Sozen, is less likely to be recognized by non-Turkish viewers. As on his last two features, "Anatolia" and "Three Monkeys," Ceylan wrote the screenplay with his wife Ebru, and edited with Bora Goksingol. Most crucially, his regular cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki is back on board to work his digital compositional magic.
The pitch: As usual with Ceylan's work, plot details for his latest are lean: Bilginer plays an actor turned hotel owner, whose growing estrangement from his young wife and recently divorced sister prompts him to leave as winter sets in. The director himself has helpfully offered that it's "about humans" and "a drama set in the middle of Turkey, in Anatolia." That narrows things down. Whatever it is, there's a lot of it: at 196 minutes, "Winter Sleep" is the longest film in Competition.
The prestige: Ceylan currently occupies as lofty a perch as any regular Cannes auteur can hold without winning a Palme d'Or: he's taken the runner-up Grand Prix du Jury twice, first for "Distant" in 2002 and again for "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" in 2011. In between, he won Best Director for 2008's "Three Monkeys," while 2006's "Climates," surprisingly passed over by the jury, took the FIPRESCI prize. He has yet to strike out with critics, while "Anatolia" was his most broadly acclaimed film, featuring on any number of 10 Best lists. His stock has never been higher.
The buzz: Which is why so much critical excitement swirls around his latest, despite the relative paucity of information about it. Ceylan's directorial stamp is by now sufficiently identifiable and sufficiently admired that his name is enough. The length, imposing to some, is enticing to others, promising something of a magnum opus.
The odds: Which is also why, sight unseen, the film has been installed as the pundits' and bookies' favorite for the Palme d'Or since well before the lineup was announced. (Jigsaw Lounge has Ceylan out in front with 4-1 odds.) With a brace of Grand Prix wins and a Best Director prize, Ceylan may have reached the point at Cannes where further runner-up prizes would simply be awkward. (Only if the film isn't our Palme winner, meanwhile, will Bilginer be in the Best Actor frame.) The timing is right for the big one, and past juries haven't been averse to using the award as a kind of cumulative career marker. Still, the film has to deliver on all fronts, and Ceylan's is the kind of austere formalist cinema that can inspire more admiration than unified devotion. Jane Campion's egghead-heavy jury may just go there, however: if Theo Angelopoulos can win a Palme d'Or, so can Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Next in Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up one of the most name-heavy titles in the lineup: David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars."