The Turkish film Winter Sleep (or, in Turkish, Kış Uykusu, which technically means “hibernation”) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes yesterday. It was a major victory for its writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who has been winning all the other awards at Cannes for some years now. Unfortunately, many in the U.S. — even among cinephiles — are unfamiliar with his work. Since I have been (for perhaps obvious reasons) obsessively following his career for well over a decade, here are some things you may want to know about this year’s winning director.
1. His name is pronounced “Noo-rih” “Bil-geh” “Jay-lahn.”
(The letter “C” in Turkish is pronounced like a “J” — never an “S” or a “K” — and the letter “G” is always a hard “G.”)
2. His last five features have all screened in competition at Cannes — and he has never gone home empty-handed.
2003’s Distant won the Grand Jury Prize (effectively, Cannes’s second-place award) as well as Best Actor for its two stars. 2006’s Climates won the FIPRESCI Prize. 2008’s Three Monkeys won Best Director. And 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia also won the Grand Jury Prize.
3. He pays homage to Anton Chekhov in pretty much every one of his films.
His first feature film, The Small Town, was dedicated to Chekhov. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia adapts a number of Chekhov short stories, as does (reportedly) Winter Sleep. Additionally, Ceylan himself has said that all his films are, on some level, inspired by Chekhov.
4. Earlier in his career, Ceylan almost exclusively worked with friends and family.
This was in part because he felt painfully shy about trying to direct anyone else; indeed, his crews often consisted of just two or three people for that same reason. (There are some funny stills from the production of Distant wherein we see his actors having to hold up reflector cards, etc.)
5. Ceylan’s younger cousin, Mehmet Emin Toprak, was one of the director’s go-to actors for many years before his tragic death at the age of 28.
Toprak had never acted before Ceylan cast him as one of the stars of his first film, The Small Town. He would appear as the co-lead of Ceylan’s next two films, all the while continuing to work in a ceramics factory. (He’d take time off from his day job to act in his cousin’s films.) Toprak died in a car accident months before Distant premiered at Cannes. Indeed, he had just found out that Distant would be screening in competition at Cannes, and had promised his wife that they would have their honeymoon on the Croisette. At Cannes, Toprak posthumously shared the festival’s Best Actor prize with co-star Muzaffer Özdemir. At the time, Ceylan admitted that he didn’t quite know how to proceed without Toprak, who had been instrumental in all his features to that point.
6. Despite having almost no acting experience, Ceylan cast himself and his wife Ebru in the lead for his fourth film, Climates, as a couple undergoing an upsetting breakup.
It was only after this film that Ceylan finally began to cast professional actors in his films. (Don’t worry, he and Ebru are still married. In fact, they wrote the screenplay of Winter Sleep together.)
7. His first few films were autobiographical.
The Small Town is made up of his and his sister’s memories about living in a small town, and it was shot in Ceylan’s home town, using his family. Clouds of May, a companion piece to the earlier film, is about a man who comes to his small town to make a film starring his family; it features a recreation of the shooting of The Small Town. Distant is about a photographer/aspiring filmmaker in Istanbul who becomes irritated when his rural cousin comes to visit. As for Climates, see No. 6.
8. It’s hard to get critics to agree on which of his films is his best.
Even though the U.S. press tends to give short shrift to Ceylan’s films, critics by and large have been extremely positive on all his work — to the point that there is wide disagreement on which film is his best. Distant was his breakthrough film, Climates is probably his rawest, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia his most ambitious. Personally, it’s hard for me to choose between any of those three films. (And Three Monkeys is pretty amazing as well.) But if I had to pick one entry point for viewers unfamiliar with his work, I’d say go with Distant.
9. He began his career as a photographer, and his films are gorgeous.
Even critics who don’t like his films admit that Ceylan’s films are stunning to look at — whether it’s the dreamy, snow-covered cityscapes of Distant, the ominous, Sophoclean skies of Three Monkeys, or the pitch-black nocturnal hills and valleys of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Ceylan served as cinematographer on his early features, but has since moved onto using others, as his crews have grown. He also regularly exhibits his photography.
10. His favorite filmmakers are Yasujirō Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, and Ingmar Bergman.
In other words, he’s pretty old school in his tastes, and this is reflected in his films, which are somber, impeccably crafted studies of alienation — from the land, from society, and from each other.
11. His films are surprisingly funny.
Despite his reputation as a filmmaker who makes serious movies about serious subjects (see No. 10), Ceylan’s films often have a droll, irreverent sense of humor. The scenes in Clouds of May involving the filmmaker protagonist’s abortive attempts to direct his parents are quite hilarious. Distant is virtually a dry comedy that calls to mind early Jim Jarmusch movies. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia co-stars one of Turkey’s most popular comic actors and, amid all that existential torment, contains quite a bit of funny dialogue about the incompetence of the authorities. (Admittedly, it’s funnier if you know Turkish.) Winter Sleep also co-stars one of Turkey’s biggest comic actresses, Demet Akbağ.
12. Despite the relatively consistent nature of his style and his themes, Ceylan’s work has progressed through several periods.
His first two films (The Small Town and Clouds of May), set in rural Turkey, were gentle, warm narratives that presented nature as a redemptive force. Distant and Climates depicted the cruelty of modern relationships, and did so in harsh, deadpan, static shots. Three Monkeys was a near-operatic family drama, full of adultery, betrayal, abuse, and murder. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, on the other hand, was an abstract, dreamlike reverie about the search for a missing body — the most “arty” of his films, but in a good way.
13. He doesn’t like to use music.
Soft, diegetic music occasionally drifts in from radios or people singing in his films, but by and large Ceylan avoids using music on the soundtrack, instead opting for complex sound designs — incorporating things like wind chimes and bird cries — which often take on an abstract quality.
14. He once shot one of the most disturbing sex scenes I’ve ever seen.
In Climates, Ceylan himself plays a man who, after he breaks up with his longtime girlfriend, reconnects with an old flame. Then, in a scene where the characters’ intentions remain disturbingly unclear, he forces himself on her, tearing off her clothes and holding her down. At first, she flails at him, and eventually gives up. It’s hard to tell at first if this is just some kind of disturbing sex game they’re playing. But as the scene proceeds, you begin to get the very uncomfortable sense that the protagonist of the film has just raped someone … Then, however, just a couple of scenes later, they’re together again, pleasantly chatting and sipping wine. Which, if you think about it, makes the scene even more disturbing.
15. He is not an overtly political filmmaker, though he often makes political statements in his acceptance speeches.
He did so again with his most recent Cannes speech, when he dedicated his award to the “young people of Turkey, many of whom have lost their lives in the past year”— a reference to the anti-government protests that have rocked the country.
16. Up until Winter Sleep, his characters have remained rather quiet.
Ceylan’s submerged, passive-aggressive characters tend to avoid conflict, opting instead to seethe and/or suffer in silence. But Winter Sleep is, apparently, full of extended dialogue scenes, so maybe he’s entered a new stage.
17. This is not the first time a Turkish film has won the Palme d’Or.
In 1982, the controversial film Yol (written and produced by Yılmaz Güney, a legendary director-star who was in prison for murder at the time of its production) shared the top Cannes prize with Costa-Gavras’s Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. Yol was banned in Turkey for many years, and Güney died in exile. When Ceylan won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes for Distant, he dedicated his award to Güney.