Haluk Bilginer as Aydin in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep.

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin in Winter Sleep

The latest film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is Winter Sleep.  Earlier this year the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (his fourth award there). For us, a new offering from Ceylan, arguably the greatest director working currently, must be seen, whatever the circumstances.  At three and a quarter hours of almost constant dialogue, and in the torture chamber that is FACT Liverpool’s Box with its sofa seats that bear no relation to the human body, this made for a challenging experience.  But a deeply rewarding one.

Jane Campion, head of the Cannes jury, said that she Winter Sleep as ‘a Chekhov story where the characters torture each other’. Indeed, Ceylan has drawn upon one, possibly two, Chekhov short stories for his screenplay, in which his characters argue and needle each other without pause. Nevertheless, as Campion went on to state,the film has ‘a beautiful rhythm that draws you in’.  Every one of the film’s 196 minutes enthrals, totally.

The film opens in one of the memorable landscapes for which Ceylan’s films are known.  The camera pans across an otherworldly landscape of strange, honeycombed rock formations and wind-blown, grassy slopes before zooming in on the figure of a man in a long dark coat, hunched and deep in thought. He is soon revealed to be Aydin, a former actor, an intellectual with impeccable liberal views, who owns the Hotel Othello, which, like neighbouring dwellings, has been carved out of the wind-eroded rock formations.

Unlike Ceylan’s previous films, Winter Sleep takes place almost entirely indoors, with most of the film being insistently interior, in every sense of the word.  Before the opening titles, the camera slowly zooms in on the back of Aydin’s head, as if entering his mind, a shot which suggests immediately that this will be a film in which people argue about what’s going on in their heads – pretty much without a pause.  This just be the wordiest film ever:  if you aren’t Turkish you will have read the equivalent of a short story by the time the end credits roll.

Aydin (the name is apparently a pun in Turkish, sounding like ‘enlightened intellectual’) was once a celebrated actor who worked in Istanbul. He prides himself on ‘never having done soaps’ which turn out to be a joke inserted into the script at the expense of Haluk Bilginer who gives a superb performance as Aydin: Bilginer once starred, apparently, in EastEnders.

Aydin’s character is possibly based on Pavel Andreitch, the protagonist of Chekhov’s short story The Wife, in which Andreitch’s attempt to write a ‘History of Railways’ is disrupted when he receives a letter asking for financial help for peasants in a nearby village. At the beginning of Ceylan’s film, Aydin also gets a letter seeking his support for a local project. The letter has been written by a person who has read the regular column which Aydin writes for a local newspaper in which he expresses his liberal views, sometimes critical of the conservative influence of religion in neighbouring villages. Aydin is also attempting, without much success, to write the ‘History of Turkish Theatre’.

In outward appearance Aydin is a charming man who converses affably with the travellers who pass through his hotel, and offering hospitality to his house guests. Soon, however, it becomes evident that he is also self-satisfied, vain and deluded.  This is a man who never lifts a finger: he is forever summoning tea or coffee to be brought – usually by a woman.  He is also a big local landlord, having inherited from his father a portfolio of local properties, the homes of poor villagers.  This is a man who has others do his dirty work – lawyers and debt-collectors who secure the evictions of those behind with their rent – and Hidayet, his driver and right-hand man, who issues threats on his behalf and carries his bags.  One scene memorably illuminates Hidayet’s servility: as he struggles in a blizzard with Aydin’s suitcases at the railway station, he slips on ice and falls over, unnoticed by the other man.

Commenting on Aydin’s character, Ceylan has remarked :

The human is a very complex creation. I wanted to show that complexity as it is. All of us are complex. One day you think – this is a very good man. But the next day he becomes very brutal.

The whole set-up has a distinctly Chekhovian feel: Aydin as the intellectual, a privileged man of property concerned with questions of philanthropy and social improvement, the centre of a household that comprises his beautiful, intelligent, and much-younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen), his recently divorced, sharp-tongued sister, Necla (Demet Akbag); his factotum Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan); and a barely-visible maid. Beyond the immediate household there are his tenants in the nearby village, who pay him rent, just as they did to his father before him.  Overlaying all is the air of disillusionment, that sense that we can never escape ourselves, that inescapably we cause our own unhappiness.  In fire-lit rooms aglow with warmth, intellectuals argue about individual freedom and the right of all to a decent  education. Beyond the gates: impoverished, disempowered peasants.  As in Chekhov, there will be an epiphany that probably won’t lead to anything changing.

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Aydin writing on his Macbook Pro, argues with his sister, Necla

With his embittered sister Necla, Aydin has arguments about matters of conscience – how we should respond to evil – that quickly spiral into bitter recrimination.  At such moments, the siblings are brely able to look at each other. He faces his computer; she is behind him, lounging on a sofa. ‘I wish my threshold for self-delusion was as low as yours’, she says before quietly savaging his latest newspaper column in which he bemoans declining standards and writes condescendingly of the ignorance and squalor of the villagers’ lives. ‘It reads like the writer has adopted certain values just to make himself popular. It stinks of sentimentality,’ murmurs Necla.

Karin Badt  wrote of this scene in her Huffington Post review that:

While such probing dialogue is familiar Chekhov, the genius of Winter Sleep lies in Ceylan’s direction: his use of set, sound and camera. The sister-brother episode, for example, takes place while the two are peacefully reposing in a warm study, in golden hues, the sister lounged on a couch, the man at his desk. We do not need screams or gunshots. This is how sibling tension is expressed in “real life”: in a homey room, while rain falls and each word becomes an invisible bullet. No extra cues are necessary “to get it.” In fact, in the 210 minutes of the film there are less than 5 minutes of music (a repeated strain of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20). Climatic moments are scored, rather, by the sound of a door opening, a fire burning, rain falling, a car driving up the road.

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Aydin and his wife, Nihal

All three main characters – Aydin, his sister and his wife Nihal – are trapped by the boredom and isolation of their lives far from the metropolis of Istanbul, in a wild and remote landscape inhabited only by the poverty of those who inhabit the nearby villages. Nihal and Aydin live separate lives under the same roof, she with her own rooms and separate routines. In Chekhov’s short story, The Wife, we read this:

My wife … slept, had her meals, and received her visitors downstairs in her own rooms, and took not the slightest interest in how I dined, or slept, or whom I saw. Our relations with one another were simple and not strained, but cold, empty, and dreary as relations are between people who have been so long estranged, that even living under the same roof gives no semblance of nearness.

Nihal has channelled her free time and her rich husband’s money into organising a fundraising committee to improve local schools. But when, one day, Aydin finds the committee members meeting at their home, he perceives it as a threat and forcefully attempts to snatch control of her project from his wife.  Pawing through the project accounts he treats her like a child.  The scene in Winter Sleep closely follows the comparable scene in Chekhov’s The Wife:

“Show me how much you have collected and how much you have spent.”

“I have no secrets. Any one may see. Look.”

On the table lay five or six school exercise books, several sheets of notepaper covered with writing, a map of the district, and a number of pieces of paper of different sizes. It was getting dusk. I lighted a candle.

“Excuse me, I don’t see anything yet,” I said, turning over the leaves of the exercise books. “Where is the account of the receipt of money subscriptions?”

“That can be seen from the subscription lists.”

“Yes, but you must have an account,” I said, smiling at her naïveté. “Where are the letters accompanying the subscriptions in money or in kind? Pardon, a little practical advice, Natalie: it’s absolutely necessary to keep those letters. You ought to number each letter and make a special note of it in a special record. You ought to do the same with your own letters. But I will do all that myself.”

“Do so, do so . . .” she said.

I was very much pleased with myself.

And when Nihal launches a tirade against Aydin, fighting to retain control of the activity that has saved her from boredom, he listens with a patronising smirk on his face. Then he changes tack: hurling her papers to the floor, he tosses onto her desk an envelope containing a large sum of money – a donation to the committee under the name ‘anonymous’.  ‘You are selfish, spiteful and cynical,’ Nihal tells Aydin.  ‘You suffocate people – crush and humiliate them.’

Winter Sleep 3

Aydin and Nihal

Watching this scene between Aydin and Nihal unfold it was impossible not to think of the current threats being made to the position of women in Turkish society. The Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan, has been accused of blatant sexism after declaring that women are not equal to men and claiming feminists in Turkey reject the idea of motherhood.  Erdoğan added that biological differences mean women and men are unable to serve the same functions, with manual work being unsuitable for the ‘delicate nature’ of women.  Recently, in a further example of such attitudes, the deputy prime minister, Bülent Arinc, one of the co-founders of the ruling Islamic Justice and Development party, lamenting the moral decline of modern society and suggested that women should not laugh in public.

The drama in Winter Sleep turns upon an incident that occurs in the first half hour, when a boy throws a stone which shatters a window of the jeep in which Aydin and Hidayet are travelling. The boy is the nephew of Hamdi (Serhat Kilic), the local hodja (Islamic teacher), whose brother is an unemployed ex-prisoner prone to lashing out violently.  The family are Aydin’s tenants and they are angry that his debt collectors have taken away their television and humiliated them.  Hamdi, an ingratiating and servile man,  tries to calm the tension between his embittered brother and their landlord by taking the boy to apologise to Aydin for vandalising his jeep.

These scenes emphasise the extent of gulf that divides the rich and educated who congregate in the warmth and comfort of Aydin’s hotel from the poor who scratch a living in his sparsely-furnished, run-down properties.  In the Observer, Mark Kermode wrote:

In a drama in which wealth and poverty are juxtaposed as starkly as religion and secularism, the motivations, aspirations and disappointments of every character are described with pointillist precision, tiny details combining to create utterly coherent portraits. Take Hamdi (Serhat Kiliç), embattled uncle of the young boy who casts the stone, now desperately attempting to reconcile his hot-headed brother and passively threatening landlord, his lips permanently stretched in a grimace of desperation and decency that speaks volumes about his inner anguish.

The ambitious screenplay for Winter Sleep was co-authored by Ceylan with his wife and regular collaborator, Ebru Ceylan.  The script unwinds slowly but with purpose, setting up early crises that are resolved much later in the film.  A very long film, with lengthy conversations that extend into debate and argument, it is always engrossing, the characters so interesting, and the thematic density so challenging, that its length is never a burden.  Collaborating on the screenplay (as they have done since Climates in 2006), Nuri Bilge and Ebru Ceylan really get under the skin of their male and female characters. ‘It’s by arguing about a scene that we make it deeper,’ the director has said in interview. ‘We’re able to see it from both the man’s and the woman’s point of view.’

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Aydin and the strange landscape of Winter Sleep

Winter Sleep is a film that exposes the hypocrisy of those who argue about morality from a position of comfort and security, allowing them to feel the satisfaction that comes with possessing something that the dispossessed person so clearly lacks. For Nihal, the epiphany will come when her noble vision of helping Hamdi’s family by handing over the wad of banknotes donated by her husband comes face to face with the quiet but devastating contempt of his brother, Ismail. He rejects Nihal’s gesture with an act that is utterly horrifying to the wealthy giver of charity. In his Observer review, Mark Kermode observed that:

The tension between morality and malice is at the heart of Ceylan’s sprawlingly wordy and cumulatively powerful meditation upon Dostoevskian guilt that credits Chekhov … and nods stylistically toward the architectural psychologies of Bergman. The unfashionably expansive dialogue is proudly argumentative and unashamedly literary; these are the kind of conversations one might expect to encounter in a novel or play rather than a film.

The three lead performances are superb, especially in the two pivotal scenes where, firstly, Demet Akbag as Aydin’s sister Necla coolly demolishes her brother’s complacent self-assurance while stretched out on the sofa behind him; and secondly the confrontation between Aydin and his wife, played by Melisa Sozen.

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Winter Sleep: snow and mysterious landscape

Like all of Ceylan’s films, Winter Sleep is beautifully photographed, with cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki, who shot the three previous films from Ceylan.   Once again, Ceylan has chosen a spectacular location for the film’s location: filming took place during two winter months in a village in Cappadocia  in Central Anatolia, where most of the dwellings are carved out of the rocks. Peter Jackson must be kicking himself that he overlooked this place when shooting the Hobbit films!  Unlike most of Ceylan’s previous films, though, most of the action takes place in interiors – but beautifully lit and furnished to suggest the warmth and intellectual richness with which Aydin and the two women surround themselves – as well as their isolation from the harshness of the human and natural landscape outside.  As in most of Ceylan’s films, snow falls heavily and human figures struggle to make headway.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan wins Palme d'Or 2014

Nuri Bilge Ceylan wins the Palme d’Or in 2014

Winter Sleep deservedly won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.  In his speech accepting the prize, Ceylan acknowledged the protests in Turkey that led to the deaths of 11 people in 2013–14. The director said, ‘I want to dedicate the prize to all the young people of Turkey, including those who lost their lives’. He also mentioned the workers who were killed in the Soma mine disaster, which occurred on the day prior to the commencement of the awards event.  Writing in the Telegraph, Robbie Collin said that the film is:

 Fiendishly intelligent stuff from the director, nudging back the limits of what we expect of cinema and also what it expects of us: a mighty tale of what becomes of a man when his heart goes into hibernation.

Winter Sleep ends with Aydin and his wife returning to their separate lives. As he types the opening sentences of his history of Turkish theatre, Nihal, in another part of the house, picks up the disordered documents of the education project.  At his computer, Ayadin smiles. In his head he murmurs thoughts to his wife, beautiful words of contrition and love, words that she will probably never hear. These are closing lines of The Wife by Chekhov:

An hour later I was sitting at my table, writing my ‘History of Railways’, and the starving peasants did not now hinder me from doing so. Now I feel no uneasiness. Neither the scenes of disorder which I saw when I went the round of the huts at Pestrovo with my wife and Sobol the other day, nor malignant rumours, nor the mistakes of the people around me, nor old age close upon me – nothing disturbs me.

Winter Sleep is a deeply serious film which considers what it is to be a human being.  It is probably the best film of 2014.


See also

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