Cannes Film Fest 2014: Winter Sleep–Top Winner

The films of Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose name is still little known in America, are epics in every sense of the term: ambition, scope, depth—and running time.

At three hours and sixteen minutes, his latest, “Winter Sleep,” was the longest feature in competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Fest. The sprawling, multi-layered film must have impressed the jury and its president (Aussie Jane Campion) as it won the top prize, the Palme dÓr.  (Ceylan is the recipient of various awards at Cannes, but he has never won the big prize).

Like Ceylan’s last film, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the tale is set in Turkey’s central rural region, a spare and rough place to live, made even tougher in the winter due to snow, ice, wind, and cold.

The script, co-written by the director and his wife Ebru Ceylan, is very loosely based on several short stories, “Excellent People” and “The Wife,” by the Russian master Chekhov.  But, as always, Ceylan has more ambitious, both existential and emotional, goals on his mind.

Some American critics (not me) found the film too slow and verbose, but I was intrigued by the poignant dialogue as well as the visual imagery, which is often majestic.

The tale depicts several days in the life of a stalky middle-aged man named Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a writer, hotel owner, and wealthy landlord in a remote Anatolian community, in which the houses seem to be carved into hard rock.

Aydin is a former actor in Istanbul (which may explain why he had named the place Othello), who has inherited quite a sizable piece of land that surrounds his hotel. He perceives himself as a reporter–he writes weekly essays for a local newspaper that nobody reads, and he aims to write a comprehensive history of the Turkish theatre. (In Chekhov’s story, the wife’s goal was to document the history of the Russian railways).

The narrative unfolds as a detailed anatomy of a troubled triangle, centering on Aydin’s relationships with his very young and beautiful wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), a recent divorcee.

It soon becomes clear that Aydin enjoys better the company of Japanese guest, chatting in broken English about the merits of wasabi.

Going through a winter of discontent, he is restless and unsatisfied with most of his interactions, including the necessary one with Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), the man he employs to look after his tenants.

As the story progresses, more characters are introduced, with the same ease and precision as the main triangle. We meet the opinionated teacher Levent (Nadir Saribacak), the scheming Imam Hamdi (Serhat Kilic), and the latter’s proud, hot-blooded brother, Ismail (Nejat Isler).

A reluctant landowner, Aydin has inherited from his father not only the land but also the authority and power that come along with the wealth, which causes resentment and contempt among the inhabitants.

The text’s sexual and class politics are demonstrated in some poignant scenes, which benefit from Ceylan’s masterful mise-en-scene and rigorous framing. In one of the strongest acts, the boy who had earlier thrown a stone at Aydin’s car is brought by his uncle to ask for forgiveness.  The boy is the angry son of a poor alcoholic tenant, threatened with eviction. Expected to kiss Aydin’s hand, the rebellious and reluctant boy gets up and approaches Aydin, who extends his hand, waiting for the ritualistic gesture. But instead, the boy stares long and steady at his oppressor until he faints, falling to the ground.

Like other Ceylan’s films, “Winter Sleep” owes a  literary debt to the Russian playwright Chekhov, whose influence is formally acknowledged at the end. We witness the various family conflicts, the yearning to live in a big city, the need to experience high culture, and above all, self-alienation of a man who’s all too aware that his very existence is out of time and out of place.

“Winter Sleep” may be the most demanding and challenging film–but (for me) not the best–in Ceylan’s growing output.  This ultra-detailed psychological study places its protagonist under the microscopic gaze of its director, but despite some sharp observations and grand performance by the lead actor, the character at its center is not interesting enough to deserve such epic treatment.

Most of Ceylan’s film work is male-dominated, offering meticulously constructed portraits of ordinary lives, defined by the disparity of hopeful (yet unrealized) ideals and mundane reality. However, unlike previous films, such as the 2008 noir melodrama, “Three Monkeys,” “Winter Sleep” is an intimate, domestic, mostly interior drama, whose emotional power is a result of many accumulated details and sharp observations.

“Winter Sleep” is the kind of art film seldom seen in the U.S.–it seems to have been conceived and executed made without any considerations for commerce or concessions to the trendy marketplace.

It’s about time that Ceylan, whose films have been seen by few viewers, gets a complete retrospective in the U.S.