Winter Sleep

November 22, 2014
Melisa Sözen in 'Winter Sleep' (2014)
Melisa Sözen in 'Winter Sleep' (2014)

For a film that goes for 3 hours and 16 minutes, Winter Sleep was a surprisingly popular winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. Although the story gets anchored in intense conversations that may run for 15-20 minutes, it has a undeniable touch of greatness.

After watching his previous effort, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), I felt sceptical about the plaudits being heaped on Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. There’s a tendency for critics gush about any arthouse feature that seems unusually boring or oblique. Although Ceylan’s films could never be written off so easily, he gave the sense of a director straining after profundity. There was a self-consciousness about the indirect nature of the dialogue, the use of symbols, and the slow pacing.

The new film has all the same tendencies, but Winter Sleep has so many layers, so many twists in the way characters are developed that it sustains attention through long, intimate debates in which the characters pry into each other’s personalities, interrogating motivations and self-perceptions. If it often feels like a Russian novel of the 19th century, that’s because the story, written by Ceylan and his wife, Ebru, has been adapted from three short stories by Anton Chekhov. I wish I had time to pore over my volumes of Chekhov and identify the relevant tales, but it would be an academic exercise.

Ceylan’s Turkey, like Chekhov’s Russia, is a land where modernisation is creating tensions between the old and the new, the city and the country, the rich and the poor. The story is set in a remote part of Cappadocia, where houses are built into rocks in a way that seems surreal to foreign eyes. Aydin, (an outstanding performance by Haluk Bilginer) is an ageing, wealthy landowner who runs a guesthouse called the Hotel Othello.

The name of the hotel sets up expectations that are never really met. Aydin may have a young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), but he is not so impulsive as Shakespeare’s jealous Moor. If he were aiming to kill his wife it would be through excessive consideration rather than a fit of passion.

In a modest way, Aydin considers himself an artist and an intellectual. He worked as an actor in his younger days and is now preparing to write a history of the Turkish theatre. For the time being he dedicates his literary skills to a weekly column for the local newspaper. This allows him the opportunity to philosophise in public, which seems to be a favourite pastime.

We begin by taking Aydin at his own valuation – as a kind and civilised man, more devoted to the life of the mind than the grubby business of extracting money from tenants. For that he has a manager, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Yet when he accompanies Hidayet to a property where the rent is in arrears, he receives a hostile reception from a small boy who throws a rock at their vehicle; and from the boy’s father, who is out-of-prison and out-of-work.

This causes Aydin some mild distress, but he doesn’t see it as his problem if this unfortunate family are going through hard times. He is irritated by the wheedling brother, an Imam, who insists on bringing his nephew to apologise for the stone throwing. Aydin finds an outlet for these irritations in his column, where he can reflect on the proper role of a Man of God, even though he personally has little time for religion.

Writing in his study, he has a long conversation with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), who has left her husband and is now filled with misanthropic thoughts about everyone. She criticises Aydin’s writing and accuses him of being a failure. As a young man he seemed destined for great things but settled for being the king of his own tiny empire. Aydin responds that his sister is merely a parasite who believes the world owes her a living.

Aydin’s next long discussion is with Nihal, who has taken up charity work on behalf of the local schools. He is concerned that she is plunging naively into a field in which she has enthusiasm but no expertise. She is exasperated by his meddling in her project, but the helpful Aydin cannot understand his wife’s anger. She sees his conscientious, understanding manner as a mask for selfishness and cynicism. And this is the crux of the problem: Aydin is a man out of his time, coccooned from the world by his egotism and personal sense of morality. Nihal accuses him of hating the old for being narrow-minded, and the young for being free-thinkers.

The civilised persona Aydin has cultivated acts like a perpetual accusation to those around him. He is a victim of his own virtues; a tyrant of altruism. This portrait emerges bit by bit, as Aydin moves from one scenario to another. Not only do we begin to understand his faults, we become acquainted with Necla and Nihal’s self-deceptions. Ceylan exposes the uneven fit between temperament and circumstance that breeds unhappiness in the midst of affluence. We see that Aydin’s tidy moral proscriptions are of limited value in confrontations between wealth and poverty, charity and pride.

Ceylan frames the entire story as a progressive series of revelations, as characters discover how their self-perceptions conflict with the ways in which they are viewed by others. The verbal exchanges are interspersed with sweeping views of the barren, Anatolian landscape as the snow begins to fall. There are small symbolic moments that provide insights into Aydin’s mind; a great deal of philosophical discussion, and even a drunken exchange of quotations from Shakespeare. The only music comes from snippets of Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, played by Alfred Brendel.

Winter Sleep is one of those films that may be seen by relatively few people but not be easily forgotten. There’s a darkness in this cold part of Turkey that will work its way into every human heart.

Winter Sleep
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Written by Ebru Ceylan & Nuri Bilge Ceylan, after the short stories of Anton Tchekhov
Starring Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbag, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Mustafa Kilic, Nejat Isler, Tamer Levent, Nadir Saribacak
Turkey/France/Germany, rated M, 196 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22nd November, 2014.