Tremendous trifle

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (its original title means “Hibernation”), which won the top prize at Cannes last year, takes place in a craggy tourist area, Cappodocia, in the middle of Turkey, where wild horses roam over the strange landscape and a small hotel is built into the rocks. Clearly nowadays fine films sometimes come out of some pretty out-of-the-way places, such as Mauritania or Patagonia. Ceylan’s Turkey might not seem quite so remote a spot. This is a monumentally trivial, emptily passionate, overlong film — run-time 196 minutes — that unfolds with a certain blithe unawareness on the filmmaker’s part that its echoes of Chekhov, Bergman, and Shakespeare fall short of the mark; that its scope is more limited and provincial than theirs. But it’s about pretension, by its own intent. And though  overblown,  it ultimately succeeds in convincing us, the viewers, that it’s about something quite important and engrossing. This is its paradox and its ironic victory.

At the centre of the story (insofar as it is a story, and not just one block after another of lengthy bickering sessions) is a kind of petty king. Aytan (Haluk Bilginer) is a wealthy former actor who owns that little hotel, plus some inherited properties nearby that he rents out to impoverished tenants, who hate him. A blowhard and egotist quite oblivious to criticism, he imagines himself a kind of local moral arbiter and cultural mentor. He lords it over everyone around, not only the tenants but his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), his frustrated and beautiful young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), and his foreman Hedayet (Ayberk Pekcan), all of whom he sees every day, and who hate him too.

The actors in these four roles as well as the rest of the cast deliver fine performances. Bilginer and Sözen in particular are superb. The dialogue Ceylan and his wife Ebru, who co-scripted, wrote for them, however self-indulgent and prolix, is what puts them through their compulsively watchable paces.

Aytan, who’s fundamentally lazy, claims he’s going to write a big book about Turkish theatre.  But all he really does is write a weekly column for a small local paper in which he pontificates about various issues. He has a long bickering session with his sister in which she mocks his column. He bickers also at length with his young, beautiful wife, whose effort to raise money to help poor rural schools — when a meeting for it at the hotel causes him to discover it — he tiresomely and patronizingly seeks to undermine. Aytan pretends he wants to protect Nihal from making mistakes and embarrassing herself. It’s obvious he’s really just humiliating her and destroying her self esteem. This charitable group is the first thing that’s given Nihal a sense of purpose in years. He does his best to sweep it away, in the pretense that he’s only being kind. This is the central moment of the — I almost said play — film, and one that leads NIhal to an act that has a strong dramatic consequence.

Since the movie is all about Aytan, it becomes, as Mike D’Angelo put it in his review for AV Club, “a stealth portrait of an asshole” — a complex and sympathetically depicted one. The way we see he’s an asshole and yet somehow understand and in effect forgive him, provides the odd humanism and wisdom of Winter Sleep. It’s somewhat the same process that takes place in the plays of  Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, or Samuel Beckett. This is like a play, a closet drama (in a cave), though paradoxically it spends some key moments away from the hotel, out in the wild landscape, in other people’s houses, and in Aytan’s little SUV, and has a splendid sense of winter, with contrasts between snow whirling about in the dramatic landscape and cozy fires burning indoors.  Ceylan was a photographer before he was a filmmaker, and superb visuals are a constant in all five of his films.

When anyone criticises Aytan or weeps at his cruelty, his response is to chuckle. Those frequent chuckles, always inappropriate, yet always natural-seeming, are the essence of Haluk Bilginer’s insidious, finely calibrated, fully lived-in performance. He manages to seem somehow elegant even in sloppy clothes, and good-looking when being slimy and nasty, at every moment except for late in the action when he gets drunk with two men and throws up. Melisa Sözen too is compulsively watchable. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calls her “a beauty with moist lashes and a Modigliani neck.” Seen occasionally in just the right light, she becomes luminous. She is a beautiful young woman withering in the provinces, like Emma Bovary. Her frustration feels painfully real.

The family and its prolonged bickering aren’t all that’s going on. There are many comings and goings, the charitable group, hotel guests, wrangling a wild horse, tense meetings with the disgruntled tenants. As a thread throughout there is the drawn-out business of the tenant boy who, startlingly, early on, throws a stone and smashes the window of Aytan’s SUV while he is riding with Hedayet.

These external scenes complicate the action and add context, but they also diffuse it. Surely they’re not all necessary, and the film would be stronger without some of them. But Ceylan seems lately not to have heard about the writer’s advice to “kill your darlings.” D’Angelo’s comments pointedly that with festival films, epic length is often taken for epic importance. Winter Sleep was the longest film in competition at Cannes last year. Ergo, given Ceylan’s several Cannes prizes in the past, it became the major Palme d’Or contender before anybody had even seen it.

In his review for New York Magazine, Turkisn-American film critic Bilge Eberi says Ceylan’s early film Distant (2003) was the first he’d seen where the characters sounded “like the Turks I knew — in all our halting inexpressiveness, our occasional bursts of eloquence, our maddening, passive-aggressive judgmentalism.” This is an excellent description of the talk in Winter Sleep. This time Ceylan decided to put much bigger blocks than before of that kind of talk on display. It could be argued that a talky film, however false its claims on epic importance, has to be long to convey what talkiness is like.

I can’t agree with writers who say that though Ceylan merits a Cannes Palme d’Or, he deserved one more for his previous Once Upon a Time in Anatolia than this. I felt dragged around by that shaggy dog story of a police procedural with its dissection at the end. Winter Sleep’s richer kind of dissection, of its living protagonist, is much more absorbing. At the end, though, Ceylan as Xan Brooks put it in his Cannes Guardian review, lacks Bergman’s “banked intensity and his sweet command of a story’s arc,” and (crucial point) forgets, in emulating Chekhov, the Russian’s humour. Comparing another great recent film of rural people that happens to be Russian, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, we see another thing that’s missing: a wider context. Zvyagintsev’s biting references to his country’s moral breakdown and the nationwide corruption of its church, society, and politics add perspective to his films’s rural squabbling. And despite its own drawn-out action, Leviathan has more of a story.

And yet, in its narrow, theatrical way, Winter Sleep is great stuff. Despite its failings, this is a brilliantly acted, beautifully shot film — a trifle that eventually starts to feel tremendous.

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writers: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbag, Ayberk Pekcan
Runtime: 196 min
Country: Turkey, France, Germany

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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