by Matt Levine
There are films that try to evoke a world and its characters, and then there are those that seem to jettison us into an alternate dimension whose people and places have been existing for years—we’ve just finally been granted access. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or-winning Winter Sleep is one of the latter. With a knotty, multilayered storyline revealed in subtle increments, a feverish devotion to plumbing its characters’ psyches, and (it must be mentioned) its 196-minute running time, Winter Sleep finds its Turkish director at the peak of his powers, aesthetically and philosophically. Like much of Ceylan’s work, Winter Sleep intimately understands its characters and their relationships, yet strives to expose them through suggestion and obfuscation, somewhat paradoxically. At the same time, there are elements in Winter Sleep that seem like striking departures from Ceylan’s style—most notably its reliance on precisely scripted dialogue, often conveyed through marathon conversations that help explain the film’s hefty (yet transfixing) length.
Landmark Edina Cinema
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Producer: Zeynep Ozbatur Atakan
Writers: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan
Cinematographer: Gökhan Tiryaki
Editors: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bora Göksingöl
Cast: Haruk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbag, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Mustafa Kiliç, Nejat Isler, Tamer Levent, Nadir Saribacak, Emirhan Doruktutan, Ekrem Ilhan, Rabia Özel
Premiere: May 16, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 19, 2014
US Distributor: Adopt Films
While Ceylan’s astounding Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) was inspired by Dostoevsky, Winter Sleep—co-written by Ceylan and his wife/collaborator, Ebru Ceylan—pays tribute to Anton Chekhov, whose stream-of-consciousness dialogue, moral ambiguity, and plots structured more by mood than by narrative are especially utilized by Ceylan. The film’s dramatically sound strategy is to plunk the audience down in the middle of a tangled web of emotional turmoil and simply let the conflicts run their agonizing course. Its subject is a wealthy landowning family in Turkey’s central mountainous area of Cappadocia, whose yellow-spackled crags and peaks immediately bring to mind the bleakly beautiful landscapes of Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). Yet Ceylan seems equally interested in exploring the peaks and valleys of his leading man’s rugged facial features; Haluk Bilginer has the kind of hypnotic appearance that Bresson or Bergman might have lingered on in close-up for minutes on end. He plays Mr. Aydin, a former actor and heir to an upper-middle-class family who owns a hotel and several decrepit houses in the region.
Aydin is a case study in crafting a heavily flawed, sometimes insufferable character that remains empathetic nonetheless. Arrogant yet insecure, spiteful, domineering, he’s the kind of armchair philosopher who writes condescending op-ed columns for the local newspaper, decrying religious, social, and political situations about which he knows nothing. More despicable, perhaps, is Aydin’s casual exploitation of the less fortunate people around him; he forces his assistant Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) to carry his bags and literally fight his battles for him, and sends creditors to repossess the television and refrigerator of a poor family who haven’t paid their rent in months. This inspires the family’s young son, Ilyas, to hurl a rock at Aydin’s truck window, an act of pent-up rage that sets the film in motion. Aydin’s smug selfishness is perfectly displayed when Ilyas is marched up to Aydin’s manor by Ilyas’ uncle Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), the local imam, who pressures Ilyas to kiss Aydin’s hand as an act of apology. Though initially making a show of indifference, Aydin seems to enjoy extending his hand out to the traumatized Ilyas, relishing the opportunity to embrace the power (financial and otherwise) he holds in the community.
Aydin’s wife and sister are only too eager to inform him of his pettiness. His sister Necla (Demet Akbag) recently moved to Cappadocia from Istanbul after divorcing her husband; though civil on the surface, she quietly resents the superiority exuded by both Aydin and his wife, ultimately unleashing her disdain for Aydin in a brutally honest discussion about his failures as a writer. Aydin’s young, beautiful wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) feels understandably constricted by the desolate setting and Aydin’s tyrannical micromanaging of her life; her job as a fundraiser for impoverished schools and communities inspires her amid her depression, but even this sole pleasure is endangered by Aydin’s snide remarks about charity and his claims that Nihal doesn’t have the experience to effectively run a non-profit. These characters are all unfulfilled and resentful in some way, and their strained attempts to remain harmonious buckle easily underneath the incredibly venomous words they sling at each other. Their conflicts might have been unbearably morose and self-involved if the characters didn’t take on such flesh-and-blood complexity.
These dramas are often conveyed by extremely long stretches of dialogue—two centerpiece conversations in particular, confrontations between Aydin and the aforementioned women, take up at least forty minutes near the middle of the film. The dialogue-heavy approach is certainly Chekhovian (think of Uncle Vanya, for example), but it’s a marked departure from the quiet ambiguity of Distant (2002) or the evocative, metaphoric imagery of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Yet this is one of the few cases in which a preponderance of dialogue makes the film more cinematic rather than less so; Ceylan stages, shoots, and edits these interactions with meticulous precision, with every cut from a distanced two-shot to an angled close-up stemming from a clear shift in the conversation and its emotional undercurrents. Some have criticized the verbose, precisely worded screenplay, claiming real people do not speak in longwinded debates about morality and society, but the language isn’t necessarily supposed to be realistic; Ceylan wields dialogue as yet another tool in his filmmaker’s arsenal, intensifying it in a manner that’s not only Chekhovian but often symbolic in the manner of Don DeLillo, fleshing out the characters’ philosophies with a clarity and denseness that’s truly exhilarating to observe. Yes, the dialogue is long and wordy, but it’s also fascinating and incredibly rich; if we don’t criticize the thought-provoking language of a novel by Proust, for example, why should it be off-limits to a writer-director as ambitious as Ceylan?
In any case, these long interactions are necessary to humanizing characters that otherwise might have seemed abstract and symbolic. A painful argument between Aydin and Nihal at a fundraising party she holds at their manor carries the devastating, muffled anger of a real domestic dispute; Aydin’s jealousy and Nihal’s resentment are all too relatable. Later, a spiteful argument between Aydin and a local teacher, distorted somewhat by endless alcohol, meanders wildly but also evokes the class disparity between Aydin and the other villagers, who seem to live in the shadow cast by his family’s estate. The dialogue isn’t only meant to be literal and dramatic; early on, Necla delivers a theory of moral philosophy that serves as one of Winter Sleep’s most provocative themes. She posits that “not resisting evil” is one of the surest ways to eliminate violence and hatred—allowing a thief to rob or a killer to kill and forcing the culprit to wallow in their own guilt. This dialogue works on a dramaturgical level—the way Aydin haughtily laughs at her idea perfectly represents his character—but it also interjects a philosophy that reflects many of the later conflicts in a fascinating way. (At one point, Nihal tearfully employs this theory when Aydin threatens to take over her charity’s bookkeeping—only to realize that Necla’s hypothesis is not as effective in practice.) What’s more, the devious way that Aydin uses words to intimidate others and reassure himself—backing up his acerbic opinions not with sound reasoning, but with circuitous language and a sort of hollow intellectualism—suggests a critique not only of pompous rhetoric but of the underhanded ways in which those in power subjugate those beneath them, with the benefit of money and a certainty that they’re always in the right. In other words, Ceylan uses dialogue not only to evoke characters and interrogate their relationships, but also to suggest a subtle political analogy and to construct a philosophical bedrock on which these scenes are played out. This being the case, how could Winter Sleep not use language in such a meticulous, complex, razor-sharp way?
Ceylan has long been one of the most “cinematic” directors working today, which usually means an emphasis on visual composition over dialogue; think of the gorgeous moment in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia when a barrel of apples rolling down a hill is meant to represent the pattern of cause-and-effect in human existence, how one seemingly small decision can have disastrous, far-reaching consequences. With Winter Sleep, however—perhaps using Chekhov’s inspiration as a springboard—Ceylan actively adopts a more theatrical, literary approach, experimenting with how language can be composed and presented onscreen. Many of the interactions are conveyed with a minimum of cutting, bringing the style closer to live theatre; but sudden dynamic leaps and contradictions remind us that we’re in the world of film. A long dialogue ends with a boy fainting, followed by a disorienting jump cut to a pack of horses crossing a river; a quiet, gray scene set at dusk slams suddenly into bright sunlight, accompanied by the sound of a dog barking. Ceylan still plays with variation and visual space in a musical way, but he also seems to enjoy experimenting with a dialogue-driven aesthetic.
This exploration of various art forms becomes complete with a late, unexpected voiceover narration, supplied by Aydin as he gazes at Nihal through an icy window. His narration is sincere and repentant, the words he wants to tell his wife and knows that he should; but they remain forever unspoken to her, and when he does begin typing away at his laptop soon thereafter, it’s not a letter to Nihal that he’s writing but the beginning of a proposed tome on the history of Turkish theatre. It’s in ways like this that the film generates sympathy for Aydin, regardless of how arrogant and obnoxious and insufferable he can be; the man he wants to be in his literary imagination is infinitely far from the man he actually is. It is this self-perceived inferiority, never expressed outwardly, that leads to his egotism and spitefulness; he can write himself as an ideal man in the articles and essays he peddles, but then there will always be the gap between his art and reality to haunt him.
There’s much more to Winter Sleep: more philosophies, more social allegory, more emotional epiphanies, and (as always with Ceylan) a handful of images that are breathtaking in their beauty. But it’s senseless to exhaust all of them here, especially since I couldn’t fully convey them anyway. There’s no getting around the fact that the 196-minute running time might intimidate some audiences, and that the long conversations and introspective character development might not satisfy viewers who crave action and strong storytelling from their movies. But over Winter Sleep’s three-plus hours, Ceylan reminds us how many other infinite ways cinema can be satisfying, rich, and (dare I say it) entertaining. By the end, as in many of the greatest movies, you feel you’ve been spying through a keyhole into a parallel dimension, with hyperintense characters so complex and lived-in that you can practically feel their tension drift through the winter air.