(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
The movie Winter Sleep , Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film, won the Palme d’Or, the top prize, last spring at Cannes. If the only information you have about a movie is that it won this award, you can be pretty confident of three things: It is long. It is conceived as an allegory or epic or both. And it features at least one scene of a character vomiting (movies that win big at Cannes are usually considered “tough,” “gritty” and “real,” and one way they earn those accolades is by featuring scenes with bodily fluids). Ceylan’s 196-minute Winter Sleep checks all three boxes.
Ceylan has been a Cannes favorite since he began making movies in the 1990s, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes for Distant (2002) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), as well as the Best Director Prize for Three Monkeys (2008).
Winter Sleep is a movie that is well made, and it’s possible to admire it, but it’s hard to imagine anyone truly enjoying it. A somber political and social allegory about contemporary Turkey, it raises questions about modernity in general, and paints a timeless portrait of a bad marriage.
Visually, the film is extraordinarily rich, especially considering that much of it is static close-ups of actors who, fortunately, have gorgeously expressive faces. The scenes of the Anatolian landscape are breathtaking.
The anti-hero is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a retired actor who writes a newspaper column and runs the hotel nestled in the hills that he inherited from his parents.
He lives in this remote spot with his much younger, gorgeous wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen), and his bitter, divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), in a home with cozy but cavernous rooms, lit by fireplaces and decorated with lovely carpets and mementos from his acting days.
As the story unfolds, you will have ample time to study every detail of the decoration. And if you have to get stuck in a remote hotel in the middle of the winter with resentful people who torment each other, you couldn’t pick a more handsome setting.
Aydin is disconnected from the countryside, leaving the details of rent collection (and, often, debt collection) from the tenants who live on his estate to lawyers and his working-class hired hand, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Aydin is a on a drive with Hidayet when the son (Emirhan Doruktutan) of one of the tenants throws a stone at their van, breaking the window. Hidayet and the boy’s father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), almost come to blows as Hidayet asks Ismail for money to repair the window. Ismail’s brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kilic), an imam, comes to explain that the family’s television and refrigerator have already been repossessed to pay their debt to Aydin. Ismail is an alcoholic who was recently released from prison. Aydin takes all the information in but makes no decision.
Before long, we learn that passive-aggression is Aydin’s usual modus operandi. He is contemptuous of his wife’s charity work raising money to repair local schools, and she is so afraid of his scorn that she turns down his offer to help her organize her contributions, help that she actually needs. His offer to intervene isn’t selfless: He suspects she may be having an affair with a local teacher who works in the fund-raising effort with her.
Aydin is meant to represent the elite alienated from the common man, as well as secular intellectuals who have lost touch with their faith.
He is ridiculous and malicious at the same time, and the wife who stays with him for his money and not for love is realistic but not very sympathetic.
The actors are excellent, and their talent shines through every scene, even the talkiest ones. The film is mainly composed of set-piece dialogues with a distinctly Chekhovian flair and is conceived as a loose adaptation of some Chekhov stories. The main characters, who struggle with their privilege and idleness, try to find meaning in their lives and talk about going to Istanbul the way Chekhov’s rural characters spoke of Moscow.
But as meticulous as Winter Sleep is, Ceylan isn’t Chekhov, and the dramatic structure that underpins every line of Chekhov’s work is lacking here. There is drama, but it is rarely compelling.