In the credits, Winter Sleep lists Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Voltaire as influences. Those four names put together should be enough to entice any potentially interested folk to see this film, equally they should also be capable of chasing away anyone not pure enough of mental fortitude, intellectual power and cultural capital. Three hours of Turkish people discussing how everything sucks? Count me in!
In all seriousness, Winter Sleep is an utterly staggering film, and a worthy winner of this year’s Palme d’Or. At three hours and 15 minutes long it might sound like an undeterminable slog, though it is anything but. I was sucked in from the word go and I didn’t detach myself from the film at all until the closing credits. I savoured every moment.
Then again, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films do have a habit of hitting me right in the guts where I like it. His previous effort, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is one of my favourite films of all time, one of the most gorgeously relaxing, ethereal films I’ve ever seen. That film’s tale of a group of policemen, a doctor and a prosecutor scouring the Anatolian countryside for a body whilst discussing philosophy is sumptuously thick and thought-provoking, and Winter Sleep is very much in the same vein.
Ceylan’s newest film focuses on Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), an aging ex-actor, hotel owner and landlord who lives in the Turkish countryside. He writes rambling columns once a week for a local newspaper, attempts to avoid contact with his annoyed tenants from whom his lawyers are demanding rent, and generally acts like a shit towards his wife and sister. In short, he appears to be a thoroughly unlikeable man, a man of much reading but little real-life experience, a man of much money but little empathy. Unfortunately for us, the two people closest to him also appear to be highly flawed. His sister Necla (Demet Akbag) constantly needles Aydin on his philosophical vapidity, though she herself appears to be fairly vapid herself. A recent divorce has led her to move back in with her brother, and now she seems to sit around at home making constant negative remarks about the others in the house whilst doing little to move on from her failed marriage.
Aydin’s wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) is a different story altogether. She’s a good deal younger than him and quite beautiful to boot. She seems initially to be the most gentle and kind of the three. She runs a philanthropic organisation in the area for impoverished schools and seems to be quite successful. As the film penetrates into the deeper depths of Aydin’s life, we begin to see how he consistently seems to be be misreading and misunderstanding those he lives with. When Aydin suddenly takes an interest in his wife’s philanthropy, she pushes him back, rather aggressively. In turn, he vindictively begins to take an even nosier approach to her charity. The two argue and argue in one of the film’s longest and most painful scenes. It is preceded by an almost equally long argument between Aydin and Necla wherein both lose their temper. These two scenes form the heart of Winter Sleep.
Philosophical questions are raised in these scenes. One such question, raised by Necla, is whether the best thing to do in the face of evil is to do nothing. She argues that doing nothing may force the wrongdoer into feeling remorse and guilt, therefore encouraging him to give up his ways. This question raises the ire of her brother, who gets frustrated when he feels incapable of understanding Necla’s logic. Sometimes one senses a certain political bent to Winter Sleep. Aydin’s inability to relate to others and his sense of intellectual isolation combined with his arrogance and authoritarian nature brought me to think of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current Turkish President. Necla’s proposition certainly brings one to think about the huge protests that swept across Turkey a few years ago in response to Erdogan’s increasingly conservative government, as well as the extremely heavy-handed response of the government authorities that in some cases led to the deaths of protestors. Would simply allowing men to be killed have provoked remorse on the part of the authorities? One wonders.
Perhaps I am clutching at straws here with the political parallel. A film as philosophically heavy as this, by its very nature, cannot avoid being political in some way. Ultimately, Aydin is simply too complex a character to be compared to anything other than himself. Despite his many flaws and the flaws of his close circle, these people end up as somewhat emphatic. They are plagued with problems, with guilt and remorse, and they are endlessly fascinating and engrossing to watch. This is helped in no small part to the staggering performances, in which no one actor allows themselves to take centre stage for any significant period of time. All the performances work in tandem, interlocking in with one another to create one cohesive whole.
It should also be mentioned how astounding the cinematography is and how it is brilliantly used to amplify the nature of the story. Winter Sleep is set in the incredibly picturesque rocky Cappadocian region of Turkey (I think, someone may want to correct me on this), and yet with the exception of a few utterly breathtaking exterior shots, the film takes place largely indoors. Combined with its widescreen frame ratio, Winter Sleep quickly becomes a very claustrophobic watch. The early parts of the film evoke cosiness and warmth whenever we travel indoors, but as time draws on and we learn more and more about these characters, the interiors begin to feel darker and tighter. Eventually any exterior shots are used almost as if they are deep exhales. In a particularly gorgeous, Tarkovsky-esque scene, Aydin sets free a captured wild horse, as if to allay some of his spiritual burden. The horse bolts off into the early dawn light, ecstatic to be able to taste the wild countryside again. The unfortunate friends and family of Aydin are not so lucky.
Despite what my description of Winter Sleep may suggest, the film avoids simply spending three hours jabbing needles into its characters, which would have made for a viewing experience equally as painful. Instead, it locks us into a room with these people and forces us to try and understand them, through all their issues and problems. In the end, we do, and that is the mark of a great film.