Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant in 2003 was the first film I’d ever seen that depicted characters who actually sounded like the Turks I knew — in all our halting inexpressiveness, our occasional bursts of eloquence, our maddening, passive-aggressive judgmentalism. It felt like a revelation. It was also a remarkable turn-around from Ceylan’s first film, 1998’s The Small Town, an extremely low-budget and ultimately abortive attempt at chatty, Chekhovian languor. Over the years, I’ve continued to marvel at Ceylan’s work: He’s managed to maintain his somber, highly aestheticized yet observational style, even as he’s told more and more complex tales and ventured further into the realm of myth. His 2011 film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, feels more monumental with each passing day.
I provide all this prologue because Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year and is in some ways his most ambitious film (it clocks in at 196 minutes), feels like a kind of homecoming. Ceylan has invoked Chekhov many times in his previous films, but this might be his first attempt since The Small Town to capture that sense of life unfolding beneath the characters’ constant chatter. Gone is the naturalism of films like Distant and Clouds of May and Climates, replaced instead with a more pointed, stylized sense of back-and-forth. (Ceylan may be a fan of Chekhov, but like many non-Russians who reference Chekhov, he seems not to have much use for the writer’s humor.) While the characters in Winter Sleep might be as spiritually inexpressive as those in Ceylan’s earlier films, they’re never at a loss for actual words. They spend hours talking about guilt, religion, charity, debt, relationships, family. The words are not empty, but they are often an impediment. Too much reflection, we sense, can be a bad thing.
The central figure in the film is an aging, wealthy landowner named Aydın (Haluk Bilginer, one of Turkey’s few internationally known actors, giving what’s probably his greatest performance). He spends his time running a hotel in Cappadocia, a picturesque tourist hot spot smack dab in the middle of the country and renowned for its valleys of surreal, ancient cave dwellings. Aydın is a former actor and intellectual; he has returned to his village to take over his late father’s property. He likes to write weekly newspaper columns about regional issues — topics about which he presumes to know something — while also making noises about writing “a thick, serious book” about the history of the Turkish theater. Cocooned in the privilege that wealth, education, and a certain cerebral self-awareness lends him, Aydın loves to tell others how to live their lives. Among those he lords over are his young, beautiful, estranged wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen, whose tense, withholding performance is among the year’s finest) and his similarly adrift sister Necla (Demet Akbag), both of whom live under his roof but are increasingly wary of his haughty, self-absorbed ways.
Winter Sleep has no real story to speak of, but it’s partly structured around Aydın’s interactions with a family of poor tenants who live in one of his buildings and have fallen on hard times. Aydın speaks a good game about charity and responsibility, but he has little affection for those who’ve lived on his property for decades. It’s an elegantly conceived, resonant relationship. The protagonist could stand in for an entire generation of Turkish elites who’ve refused to engage themselves with their immediate surroundings; like many of Ceylan’s previous characters, he could also stand in for the director himself, the village boy who went to the big city and became an artist. And you certainly don’t need to be Turkish to grasp a character mired in the smug affirmation of inherited wealth.
Ceylan is a master of the interplay between exteriors and interiors: He loves nature, but he also has a feel for its cold, ruthless oppressiveness; his characters often stand outside looking in, drawn by the physical and symbolic warmth of belonging. But there’s a kind of danger to that warmth, too. It takes effort to stand outside, to step away from your own reality and try to enter another’s; and, as Ceylan shows here, attempting to connect doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed, either. The Turkish title of the film, Kıs Uykusu, is more accurately translated as hibernation, and it’s hard not to feel like the cozy glow of Aydın’s world speaks to a kind of blissful ignorance. In that sense, maybe the film’s departure from the terseness of Ceylan’s previous work is one way for the director to stand outside his own comfort zone. It may not always succeed, but the lovely, perplexing Winter Sleep is a very personal film from one of the world’s foremost filmmakers. It’s well worth your time.