Aydin, a former actor, runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his young wife Nihal with whom he has a stormy relationship and his sister Necla who is suffering from her recent divorce. In winter as the snow begins to fall, the hotel turns into a shelter but also an inescapable place that fuels their animosities…
– Written by Cannes Film Festival
Thursday 20 November 2014
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is a huge, sombre and compelling tragicomedy set in Turkey’s vast Anatolian steppe; it moves at the pace of a north Atlantic convoy. This film is avowedly inspired by Anton Chekhov, and since its appearance at this year’s Cannes film festival, critics have specifically identified in it Chekhov’s stories Excellent People (1886) and The Wife (1892), although in an interview with me, the director denied having intended or created any sort of adaptation.
Winter Sleep won the Palme d’Or, and that was a triumph about which I had complicated feelings, perhaps like those of Ian McEwan fans when Amsterdam won the Booker prize in 1998. There was a sense that this wasn’t quite the best contender, nor quite the winner’s own best work – but nevertheless clearly that of a supremely praiseworthy, prizeworthy artist.
It’s a film whose geography has a daunting grandeur: the vast and wintry plain, with its rocky forms, often looks like that of an alien planet, or a planet on which the characters we see are the last humans left. This gigantic setting creates a mesmerising, if slightly mis-matched context for the pain, pathos and absurdity of a sharply observed, intimate domestic drama.
Haluk Bilginer plays the insufferably conceited Aydin, a retired, middle-aged actor who has inherited his late parents’ provincial hotel out here, along with the freehold of surrounding cottages. Running the business and collecting rent is delegated to his manager Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), allowing Aydin the leisure to write a smug, preposterous column for the local paper called the Voice of the Steppe, to bore his guests with memories of having once met Omar Sharif, and to patronise his beautiful young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag). They have come to hate Aydin – and themselves –for being dependent on his unearned wealth and trapped with him in this icy wasteland, far from the Istanbul they dream about. Bilginer’s performance shows how Aydin has cultivated the style of a worldly man. It is a mask of knowing condescension that does not conceal his own loneliness, disappointment and fear.
The movie has an oceanic swell, or surge of emotion that appears to be building somewhere in its depths, but never quite breaks into a wave.
In fact, the film’s one real dramatic flourish, when Nihal meets Aydin’s resentful tenant Ismail (Nejat Isler), seems overstated and misjudged. The extended dialogue scenes ring truer. Aydin will have long, bitter, subdued conversations with Neclan and Nihal separately, which take place in flickering firelight, as if the end of the world has come and there is no more electricity. They are conversations for which the audience must readjust their sense of conventional dramatic pace, in order to appreciate the unbearable pain and anger that everyone is afraid to express fully, for fear of admitting to the world their own anguish.
The first shot in Winter Sleep is of a smoke or steam wispily rising from the soil (oddly, I thought of the hellish vapour coming from the grate in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). The land is like a fen or a bayou, alternately icy and muddy, essentially hostile, habitable only at enormous human cost: a vision of its inhabitants’ mental landscape.
Ceylan paints an absorbing, compassionate portrait of people who are making a painful accommodation with each other, and with a world that rejected them long before they thought about rejecting it.
20 Nov 2014
A beast, a beauty, a castle in the snow. Winter Sleep, the new film from the Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan, has all the key components of a fairy tale, but its magic blows in whispering breaths, raising the hairs on your arms even as you barely notice the air’s movement.
This is a bold, intently serious film, and a justified winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, in which we watch a failing marriage unravel in a mountaintop hotel on the Anatolian steppe. (Think The Shining as retold by Chekhov, without the axe and spooks.)
The proprietor is Mr Aydin (veteran Turkish stage actor and sometime EastEnders cast member Haluk Bilginer), a retired thesp who carries himself like the region’s kindly baron, or a Shakespearean king, and whose many business interests pervade the village down below.
Early on, Aydin is driving to the village, where the houses nestle and burrow into the enormous rocky folds of the landscape. Then, with a low crack, a stone breaks one of the car windows. It was thrown by a boy who you assume is just a troublemaker, although Ceylan gradually reveals a motive behind this apparently unprompted attack. It turns out that most people have at least one very good reason to dislike Aydin: even his wife, whose charity fundraising efforts he dismisses laughingly, criticising the state of her bookkeeping like a teacher ticking off a particularly slow pupil.
Only one man, the obsequious imam, makes a concerted effort to get along with him, although Aydin is annoyed by his flattering talk and insincere, teeth-baring grins, and obliquely insults him in his newspaper column.
His sister is unimpressed. “It reads like the writer has adopted certain values just to make himself popular,” she says. “It stinks of sentimentality.”
“I wish my threshold of self-deception was as low as yours,” he snaps back. Over the film’s three hours and 16 minute running time, there’s a great deal of snapping and counter-snapping. Ceylan and his excellent cast the picture around conversations: long, literate, circuitous, psychologically searching, sometimes funny, almost always passive-aggressive. These unfold and refold in fire-lit rooms, covering everything from mushroom-picking to the nature of evil and guilt, each one casting another shaft of light on Aydin’s monumental, fragile ego.
In practical terms, this makes for a lot of scanning subtitles, although the closeness of Aydin’s life to a stage play is all part of the game, and Ceylan often sends its theatricality echoing crazily back on itself.
Ceylan’s films are an acquired taste, and his oddball isolation drama Uzak and masterful police procedural Once Upon A Time in Anatoliaare perhaps easier routes into his work for the curious. But this is more fiendishly intelligent stuff from the director, nudging back the limits of what we expect of cinema and also what it expects of us: a mighty tale of what becomes of a man when his heart goes into hibernation.