A retired, middle-aged actor-turned-hotelier and local newspaper columnist, Aydin’s everyday existence with simmering tensions within a household in breathtakingly beautiful Cappaddocia in Anatolia won the FIPRESCI Award in the main competition in Cannes. The director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, underlined how challenging the last year was at the FIPRESCI award ceremony, then, genuinely thanked the critics for supporting 3 hour and 15 minutes Winter Sleep (Kis Uykusu) with an award: “Long films are difficult, so are art films. Long, art films like mine are more difficult.”
The following day, he also won the Golden Palm. It is the first film from Turkey to get the biggest honour in Cannes, 32 years after Yol by Yilmaz Güney and Serif Gören. Ceylan dedicated his Golden Palm “to the youth of Turkey, including those young people who lost their lives during the last year in Turkey”. That was a very strong and much needed statement in front of the world media as “those young people” are the ones killed back in his homeland by horrendous and excessive state violence against innocent protestors at the anti-government ‘Gezi Park’ demonstrations.
Always Chekhovian, Ceylan is not a so-called ‘political filmmaker’. But he subtly and critically analyses the bourgeois in most his films, always with a perfect bit of black humour such as in Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi, 1999). In Winter Sleep, he increases the number and variety of those desolate souls in much emphasised social and economic circumstances similar to his previous films. He is well known for his superior ability of reflecting emotional distances filled in with long silences and uncertainties on human faces accompanied by poetically shot landscapes. But what he did mostly with images earlier, he accomplishes with brilliant dialogues in the surprisingly ‘talky’ Winter Sleep.
In the beginning of the movie when a stone smashes Aydin’s (Haluk Bilginer) car window while he and his right-hand man Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) are driving along, wealthy Aydin’s privileged life also starts to get shattered. The child who threw the stone is the son of the tenant Ismail (Nejat Isler) who lives with his local imam brother Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç) and they are way behind on their payments to Aydin. In this one single incident, the director opens up the large gallery of characters and the chain reaction between the intellectual rich and the suffering poor.
More importantly, next to that, the confrontation scene between the tenants and the right-hand man of Aydin about the child’s attack tells it all: while the violent argument creates huge tension between the ‘servant’ and poor tenants from the same class background, Aydin just watches from a distant! Ceylan clearly is not interested in ‘who threw the first stone?’ and he rather digs deep about how many stones around and how we handle with the problems. After this powerful impact you get in to the rooms of a cave hotel and are caught up in endless conversations. An unexpected detour from the director’s customary ‘quiet’ style, you might as well feel suffocated with written dialogues but soon you will be mesmerized with its multi-layered dilemmas of ordinary human condition and Ceylan’s ability of not falling into the trap of theatrical cinema.
A winter tale with timeless quality, Winter Sleep is eventually a love story and a domestic drama about the wealthy and charismatic Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), his beautiful younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), and his recently divorced sister (Demet Akbag). But through the relationships within this small family, the director delivers his most political film to date. Self-centred local aristocrat Aydin is not a bad guy as revealed in the details of this slow burning piece, but his unwillingness to interfere with any problems, or the rather sincere conversation both at home and on his land is obvious. Not much conversation going on between them, the couple seems to live apart both physically and emotionally.
Very few guests arrive in snowy winter time at the hotel, and Aydin tries to communicate with a free-spirited Turkish traveller on motorcycle or Japanese guests. His kingdom might be small, but at least he is the king of his turf, surrounded by attentive servants as we get Shakespearean quotes such as “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”, and it is no coincidence that his small hotel is called “Othello”. Also, he has a huge project in his mind, writing ‘a thick, serious book’ about the history of the Turkish theatre, but instead indulges himself writing columns for the local paper.
Interactions between the countless characters depict each of our self-delusions in everyday existence. Comfortable with his role in life, it is his sister Necla who brushes off his arrogance with her unimpressive comments on his writings, saying “It reads like the writer has adopted certain values just to make himself popular. It stinks of sentimentality”. And he fires back in turn for ‘her lack of passion’.
Ceylan reflects almost every angle of the dark of human soul. The first scene between the wife Nihal and husband Aydin about the charity work cleverly reveals not only the tension between a couple in crisis but also the limits of altruism. With brilliantly written dialogues, Winter Sleep is a not a loud film at all. Co-written with Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his multi-talented wife Ebru Ceylan, both tragic and tragically funny dialogues quietly reveal the underlying tension in each conversation. With the help of the great DoP Gökhan Tiryaki’s aesthetics, shivering interiors become a cosy nest for these mostly cruel and passive-aggressive cross-fires, pronounced in a peaceful and civilised manner. Only you might as well feel falling into cliché with a grand gesture between the frustrated wife Nihal and the angry tenant Ismail on a pile of money that you don’t expect again from the director although this scene works to emphasise both the rich wife’s pity and the poor male’s pride.
There is this image in almost every Ceylan movie — a lonely man standing in a vast and deserted landscape, seemingly locked in his thoughts, isolated from the world around him. This beautifully and poetically composed single frame has become the director’s trademark, implying the protagonists’ difficulties in everyday life and eternal loneliness. In Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi, 1999) again, we had observed his unwillingness or/and inability to communicate with others around him, especially with women.
At the ends of the films, he (photographer or filmmaker in earlier films) is just back to almost where he started, remaining reluctant to fit in society or unable to engage. This circle of existential struggle is the essence of all of Ceylan’s movies. Although given no single obvious reason, you still get the sense that these emotionally crippled men, possibly the products of the country’s troubled past, especially the military coup in 1980. Starting with The Town (Kasaba, 1997) his first four feature films are obviously somehow autobiographic, including Climates (Iklimler, 2006) which is about the intricacy of the human psyche of a couple on the brink of separation. In the socially engaged family drama Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun, 2008) he enlarged his canvas with more characters but the husband was heroic in his self-sacrificed actions, and the wife was condemned for her infidelity. In an existential police procedural in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da, 2011), the troubled men becamesomehow superior in their pathetically self-obsessed nature, and the womenwere the leverage to solve the mystery of the plot.
As we the spectators get tired of trying to understand and respect their impenetrable silenceand reluctance to communicate with women, Winter Sleep arrives just on time. With an artistic background of a former actor (‘Aydin’ means’ intellectual’ in Turkish) we are once more back in Anatolia in Winter Sleep and his circle of existential struggle. But, as a substantial development, the women here are realised characters as well as the men, andat least they articulate their feelings (“You are unbearable, selfish,spiteful and cynical”, says the wife) and we definitely feel her frustration and misery. Or “I wish my threshold for self-delusion was aslow as yours”, says the sister bitterly as they all live in a same bubble with their own reasons and flows.
Reviving Bergman with an intense journey to the human spirit along with Chekhovian quotes (“When did the house get so empty?”), Aydin, at the end is back where he started at with a little hint of hope in his nest, falling far away from what Nuri Bilge Ceylan has accomplished in his great cinematic journey with Winter Sleep.
Edited by Richard Mowe
© FIPRESCI 2014