By contributor Spencer Wilson
In literature, it is common practice to play on the imagination of the reader. The same could be said about watching a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film. Ceylan is a master of using silence in his films, such that the viewer must imagine what a character is feeling. He is a combination of Andrei Tarkovsky, with his long takes and well-framed shots; and Yasujirô Ozu, with his portrayal of characters and stories that feel authentic. These qualities are merged together to create Ceylan’s best film yet.
Fresh off his Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, Ceylan stands out as one of Turkey’s greatest directors. He has had a successful career on the European film circuit, directing films with long takes and poetic landscapes like Distant (2002) and Climates (2006), but he is basically unknown to the average Canadian. His only popular mention up to this point has been in the Coen brothers’ short film World Cinema (2007), where Josh Brolin asks the usher if Climates has any livestock in it.
The film centres around Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who owns a hotel built on a mountainous region in Anatolia, Turkey, as well some rental properties. The hotel is popular with tourists and is fairly antiquated—lacking in some modern features because “the tourists like things to look natural.” He lives with his wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who is much younger, and his recently divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag). In his spare time, he writes a column called “Voice of the Steppe” for a rather unknown, local newspaper, which he passes on to his sister to reluctantly read. He lives a more privileged life than most people in the area and thinks of himself as a person everyone admires. Truthfully, he is an indifferent and disingenuous man that everyone, including his wife, has a reason for hating.
While driving into town with the hotel’s assistant manager, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), Aydin’s truck window is struck by a rock thrown by a boy named Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan). Ilyas’s drunken father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), is furious, hits the boy, and then lashes out at Hidayet. Ismail’s brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), helps break up the fight and explains that Ilyas threw the rock because he was mad about the eviction notice the family had received. Ismail had been recently released from jail and was having trouble finding work, so he couldn’t pay the rent on time. Meanwhile, Aydin sits in his truck watching the situation.
Back at the hotel, Nihal is miserable and is finding solace in helping to organize a charity to build schools for disadvantaged children. Aydin feels left out as the organizing progresses and continuously sticks his nose in Nihal’s business by offering his own insights, which quickly begins to infuriate her. These moments reveal the fragility of their marriage as Aydin’s behaviour and the isolation of the hotel clearly take a toll on Nihal. They are seen quarrelling in almost every scene they are in together, making it hard to imagine when they were ever happy with each other.
Interspersed between these scenes are some well-written and humorous conversations, such as the reoccurring scenes between Aydin and Necla when he is trying to write his articles. She is always sitting on the couch behind him offering her various insights, which are usually used to break up the film with some moments of natural humour. For the most part, they work well to relieve the tension between the scenes of Hamdi trying to please Aydin with insincere grins and promises, followed by the uncomfortable interactions with Nihal.
The central theme throughout the film is the idea of not resisting evil. Aydin’s sister, Necla, often remarks that by defending yourself against a killer, the killer does not learn anything. This theory is further championed by Nihal while Aydin just laughs at them. Later on, Necla wonders if she shouldn’t have resisted her husband’s behaviour by divorcing him, and instead apologized for nothing in hopes that he’d feel ashamed. Nihal listens to Necla’s confession and tries to adopt the non-resistance technique as Aydin forcefully takes over the messy book-keeping for the charity. Following this theme, the main question at the end of the film became whether Aydin feels ashamed of his behaviour or not.
Although Ceylan’s previous films have been dominated by meditative pacing and a lack of dialogue, Winter Sleep places a greater emphasis on conversations between people. Ceylan and his wife, Ebru, spent six months writing the massive 285 page-long script, which is loosely based on The Wife and Excellent People by Anton Chekhov (Ceylan’s favourite author). The writing is rich in context with no piece of dialogue feeling unnecessary. But, after a while, the film begins to feel like an intellectual workout. With a runtime of three hours and 15 minutes (making it the longest film to win the Palme d’Or), the long conversational scenes that populate the film can feel tiresome. It becomes a struggle later on to keep up with all the philosophies that are shared amongst the characters, especially since most of them are so well-developed. This isn’t a bad thing, depending on the viewer, but it will warrant multiple viewings.
The film is pristinely shot, with careful attention given to the framing. Ceylan does a marvelous job of capturing the beautiful landscape of Anatolia, which is a place often referenced in his other films. To execute his signature style of long-take conversations, but still have them take place in cramped hotel rooms, Ceylan includes mirrors in the frame so that each person’s facial expressions can be seen for the several minute-long shots. It also allows the viewer to see where eye contact is being made throughout the conversation; this is important since Nihal is often seen not looking at Aydin when he’s talking to her. In general, the use of glass is done very carefully—a stand-out example occurs in the beginning when the broken part of the truck window is obscuring Hamdi’s face, while Aydin’s face is shown on the unbroken portion, demonstrating that the incident has hardly damaged Aydin at all.
Every single performance in Winter Sleep is outstanding. Ceylan never has a problem getting good performances out of his cast, which is essential when you write difficult material. Bilginer is fantastically pompous and arrogant as Aydin and Sözen portrays Nihal’s emotional breakdown with heart-breaking detail. The acting and the writing combine to make a cast of characters that feel well-developed with precise personalities.
Hanging on Aydin’s bedroom wall is a drawing by Ilya Glazunov, which was the cover for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s first (although unfinished) novel, Netochka Nezvanova; it is nearly the exact same image used for the movie poster. Ceylan has always been a fan of classic Russian literature, but never has it been clearer than in the eloquent writing of his best film. Winter Sleep can feel like a long, gruelling torrent of emotions and philosophies, but it is a film that rewards the viewer for their patience. It would be no surprise if Winter Sleep won the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars next year. It is a triumph in Turkish cinema.