When first introduced in About Dry Grasses, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest feature, Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu), an art teacher, has been in the remote village of Icesu for four years. Posted there for compulsory civil service, he has been looking to leave since the moment he arrived — and by the end of the film, he will do so. Before the school year is out, though, he will first be involved in two overlapping dramas which constitute the bulk of the film’s 197-minute runtime. In the first, Samet and his colleague-cum-roommate Kenan (Musab Eki̇ci̇) are accused of inappropriate conduct by two eighth-grade students, and come close to losing their jobs. The situation is all the more surprising to Samet when he finds out that one of the accusers is his pet student Sevim (Ece Bağci), whose innocent crush on him evidently sours when she catches him reading a love letter she wrote, which was confiscated by another teacher. In the second, Samet and Kenan get involved in a love triangle with Nuray (Merve Di̇zdar), a disabled fellow educator from a different school, who lost her leg during a recent bombing.
Like Ceylan’s 2014 Palme d’Or-winning Winter Sleep, About Dry Grasses works primarily as a character study of an arrogant man desperately lacking in self-awareness, developed across lengthy, combative conversation scenes. The difference in About Dry Grasses is how these conversations unfold in relation to Sevim and Nuray, respectively. Sevim, who goes unseen for a long stretch following the initial accusation, becomes a kind of structuring absence, a void onto which Samet can project not just his anger at the situation, but also his more general dissatisfaction with his lot in life. Nuray, for her part, is able to directly confront Samet in conversation. The film’s centerpiece scene — possibly the longest in the film — comprises an intellectual face-off between the two, in which she challenges his somewhat cynical worldview with her own. This difference in treatment is reflected, too, in the dramatic structure. Samet’s unusually friendly relationship with Sevim is there from the film’s start — and though we see nothing more inappropriate than his giving her a compact mirror, we are not privy to how their relationship began and evolved. His interactions with Nuray, by contrast, are contained entirely within the film’s timeline, and we see his duplicity in dealing with both her and Kenan.
While Ceylan may never make a film under three hours again, About Dry Grasses showcases his dramatic flair and control of pacing even better than Winter Sleep. What remains difficult to account for is the film’s shape and structure, particularly during the longest tête-à-têtes. Ceylan’s knack for dialogue and his consistent ability to elicit convincing performances from his actors is not to be undervalued. Indeed, watching About Dry Grasses, it occurred to me that Ceylan’s approach to revealing his characters’ histories, in uncovering the layers of their behavioral personalities, might be compared to that of Mike Leigh, except with logy dialogue and speech patterns instead of action. The comparison, though, only drives home how much more judicious Leigh’s use of structure is — this despite the usual critical focus on his reliance on improvisation. Following the centerpiece conversation between Samet and Nuray, they make to go to bed together, but before they do so we watch as Celiloğlu opens a door of Nuray’s apartment, the camera following him into the soundstage where the film is being shot. In a different film, this rupture would reverberate both forwards and backwards into the runtime, recontextualizing what we’ve seen, and shifting how we take what we will subsequently see. Here, though, things simply resume as before, as if no such break took place. Like most every scene in About Dry Grasses, the sequence is compelling, even thrilling in isolation. It’s the bigger picture that disappoints.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.5.