Movie Review


Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Muzaffer Ozdemir; Mehmet Emin Toprak

he most critically lauded film of last year was a buddy movie. Said film focused on the rocky rapport between a hapless, depressive divorcee and his goofy, go-with-the-flow friend. The film I'm referring to is—as you've likely surmised—Alexander Payne's Sideways, but this premise could pretty much apply to any number of odd couple-based comedies, including Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Cannes favorite Distant.

Tweaking the staid formula ever so slightly, Ceylan casts Muzaffer Ozdemir as Mahmut, a recently divorced photographer living in Istanbul, and Mehmet Emin Toprak as Yusuf, his unemployed cousin in need of a place to stay while looking for work in the city. This variation invokes another archetype: the fish-out-of-water country bumpkin adjusting to the pace of urban life. Yusuf, predictably, embarrasses himself plenty in the process, much to the chagrin of his metropolitan relative.

With the collapse of the hockey season a sudden reality, our hero can only find succor at the local bar...

Ceylan's film shares with Payne's a central relationship based on a rather tenuous point of connection. Paul Giamatti's Miles and Thomas Haden Church's Jack clearly have little common ground beyond a college dorm room they were paired together in some twenty-plus years ago. Mahmut and Yusuf are not even friends, but merely kin, and it's only out of familial obligation that Mahmut agrees to lend Yusuf a room. Mahmut is the temperamental artist (a stock role itself), increasingly annoyed by his cousin's easygoing nature and lack of initiative to go out and find a job. He's deeply lonely, but would prefer to nurse the wounds of his broken marriage in private, whether behind the lens of his camera or staring blankly at length at his television screen.

For me, one of the most dramatically effective scenes in Sideways came near the end of the film when Miles met face-to-face with his estranged ex-wife outside the church following Jack's wedding ceremony. It's one of those great, poignant movie moments when a character's body language, the expression on his face, and the inflection in his voice manage to convey so much more than what's actually being spoken on screen. Likewise, Ceylan finds just the right tone when Mahmut meets with his ex, imbuing the scene with tenderness and empathy as well as wistful regret. It's, at once, reminiscent of Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, while much of the rest of film recalls no one so much as Tarkovsky in its stylistic expression of existential melancholy.

"You can keep my CD collection, but the vaccum cleaner is MINE!!!"

From Miles and Mahmut to Steve Buscemi's Seymour in Ghost World and Ethan Hawke's Jesse in Before Sunset, the discontented male intellectual (using the word rather loosely, of course, to include a wine connoisseur, a photographer, a blues aficionado, and a writer) has become a common protagonist in current art films (again, a liberally applied term, encompassing studio off-shoot pseudo-indies as well as more obscure and rigorous foreign fare). In a piece in the New York Times last year titled "The Most Overrated Film of the Year" (Sideways), A.O. Scott made a convincing polemical case that it's no coincidence that films with such protagonists are praised (sometimes hyperbolically) by critics. He argued:
In Sideways, a good many critics see themselves, and it is only natural that we should love what we see. Not that critics are the only ones, by any means, but the affection that we have lavished on this film has the effect of emphasizing the narrowness of its vision, and perhaps our own. It both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman. (What's in it for her is less clear.)

There is nothing wrong with entertaining this conceit, and Sideways does it artfully enough. And of course, the critics respond to other stories as well. Or do we? For the most part, the groups that did not choose Sideways—the Village Voice Poll, for example, and the Washington film critics—selected Before Sunset and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind both variations on the theme of a moody, cerebral fellow graced by the kind of romantic love he probably doesn't believe in and can hardly be said to deserve. Film critics, for our part, clearly have plenty of self-love to go around.
It is on this latter point that Distant admirably diverges from the trend. There is no Virginia Madsen or Julie Delpy providing refuge for Mahmut from the wreckage of his marriage and the loneliness of his life. All he has is a country cousin.

By: Josh Timmermann

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Posted 03/18/2005 - 12:28:07 PM by wmurch3:
 I have to agree with you Josh on the Sideways wedding scence. It's really quite hard to watch in a beautiful sort of way. I think the only way to really enjoy Sideways is to completely ignore the love arch and just pay attention to Jack and Miles friendship. I couldn't agree more with Scott's commentary on the film but they could be aimed at Hollywood in general (just turn on tv to see the loser husband, attractive wife sitcoms). An essay on the role of women in film would be a more appropriate venue for his ideas. Madsen's character was underdeveloped but that doesn't make it the most "Overrated Movie of the Year".
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