Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbag
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Aydin (Bilginer), the Turkish hotelier/landlord/ex-actor/aspiring writer who is the main character of Winter Sleep, is reading a letter he has been sent. “I’ll be brief,” his correspondent has promised. Even so, Aytin has to skip a section of the letter to ensure that brevity. Nuri Bilge Ceylan offers no such respite; his Palme D’Or winner exults in the length of time it takes to get meaning across, as Ceylan captures existential slumber in a series of long conversations that pick apart his anti-hero’s psychological scabs.
Ceylan’s last film, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, took 165 minutes to explore the events of one night and day; Winter Sleep clocks in at 196 minutes, but the duration is unclear: it may span weeks or months, in plot terms, but the story is heavy with the weight of the participants’ lives. Days unfurl with a monotonous boredom that each of them knows is an accusation on the accumulated regret and wastage of their lives; the only sport is to wage a war of words on each other.
Winter Sleep is an unfashionable film, given Ceylan’s lineage in the pantheon of austere, ‘Slow Cinema’ Europeans. Rather than adopt the visual symbolism and ornate camera movement of predecessors like Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Tarr, Ceylan here offers talk, talk and more talk – long, carefully calibrated dialogues in the firelight, which carry on into the early hours, captured in armchair’s-length static takes that (ironically for one of cinema’s modern masters) are perfect for home viewing. Even the film’s myriad image systems – horses, money, glass – are discussed more than they are seen. It is a screenwriter’s film rather than a filmmaker’s… but then so was the work of Ingmar Bergman.
This is truly novelistic cinema, its texture defined not by spectacle but by intellect; indeed, the two acts of destruction that bookend the film achieve their violent impact due to the juxtaposition with the stillness elsewhere. Yet the volatility exists at a psychological level; however calmly spoken the film’s insults are, they carry a depth-charge of belittlement and hurt. Ceylan’s sheer nerve in letting the arguments unspool at length, in such classical, quasi-theatrical staging, gives the film its power, more than making up for what it sometimes lacks in subtlety.
Everything revolves around Aydin, a dilettante whose uncertain place in the world acts as the vortex around which resentment gathers. He fancies himself as a deep thinker, but, stuck in the steppes of Anatolia, he is content to be king of a small fiefdom. His cowardice is such that he won’t get his hands dirty in eviction cases, so full of aesthetic self-regard that he feels it demeans him to help poor people whom he considers filthy – and yet, when he becomes aware his wife has made a name for herself doing charitable work, suddenly he fancies a bit of thunder-stealing altruism. The arrogance and timidity is captured perfectly in Bilginer’s performance of unsympathetic charm and perpetual mansplaining, possibly something the actor learnt on his stint on EastEnders during the 1980s.
Ceylan’s masterstroke is to use other characters – Aydin’s wife, his sister, a tenant who is an imam – to probe the cracks in his personality, while also revealing theirs so that he can fight back. It’s a cruel film, in many ways, but a witty one, each exchange slathered in irony, perhaps the biggest being that Aydin and his family largely know they are conning themselves as much as each other. The performance by Sozen as Aydin’s wife, in particular, is defined by the weary ennui in her anger, already self-defeated even in her righteousness. Over three hours later of this stifling atmosphere, there are rich insights into how pettiness can infect an ecosystem. Especially towards the end, Aydin appears to achieve a redemption, but it proves as false as anything else in his life; even a crack in the facade, like broken glass, can simply be replaced in order to preserve the delusion of decency.