Winter Sleep (2014)

Winter Sleep

Cast: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbag
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Awards: Won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival

We have previously waxed lyrical about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 film, the epic whodunnit, Once upon a Time in Anatolia. His latest film, Winter Sleep, loosely based on one of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, is an altogether more ponderous affair that utilises long intense conversations between the various characters to expose the tensions between social classes and within a marriage.

The snow-covered undulating countryside of Cappadocia, dotted with peasant villages, with a small mountaintop hotel resembling a Gaudi- esque termite colony at its centre, forms the arresting visual backdrop to the story. The film opens with winter already in full swing as the last of the hotel guests are departing and the permanent residents of the area bunker down in typical Turkish fashion with copious quantities of tea and well stoked fireplaces. The ensuing isolation acts as a catalyst for long simmering frustrations to boil over into open confrontations.

Central to all the intrigues is the shaggy-haired Aydin, a wealthy retired actor, who operates the above-mentioned hotel and also owns several properties in the area that he rents out to the mostly poor locals. At the outset we are left in no doubt that Aydin considers himself a few notches above the locals; his assistant drives him around, carries his luggage and interacts with his tenants on his behalf, while he keeps an aloof distance.

An act of vandalism by the son of one of his tenants forces Aydin to engage directly with the family, which irritates him and exposes his lack of interest in engaging with the community at large. In contrast his pretty young wife, Nihal, tries to make a difference by helping to raise funds for disadvantaged schools in the area. When she holds a fundraiser in their home it irks Aydin’s sense of privacy and control. He proceeds to insult Nihal’s ability to keep proper books and her lack of experience, which leads her to accuse him of using sophisticated sophistry to bully her and others into submission. A charge that he denies just a bit too vehemently.

Aydin’s relationship with his sister, who came to live with them after her recent divorce, is not much better, highlighted by an acerbic exchange during which she derides him for wasting his time writing trite columns for a local newspaper instead of working on a book about the history of Turkish theatre. She makes the salient point that it’s easy to pull the wool over the eyes of relatively unsophisticated readers, instead of writing for a critically informed audience.

Class tensions, in particular the clash of a secular, educated and worldly Turkey with the unsophisticated lives of a poverty stricken rural population, are personified by the uncle of the boy who’s brash act of vandalism kick-starts the story. His embarrassing grovelling and forcing of his delinquent nephew to kiss Aydin’s hand in symbolic submission harks back to an earlier era when the local landowner held physical sway over his subjects. To a certain extent Aydin still exerts a form of feudal power over his dirt poor tenants, demonstrated when his debt collectors heartlessly remove their furniture and appliances during the blisteringly cold winter to pay for overdue rent.

During a drinking session at a friend’s home Aydin laments why so many people, including his wife, find him overbearing and lacking in empathy when he has anonymously donated thousands of Turkish lira to local causes over the years. He uses the old defence of the privileged that the existence of rich and poor is a fait accompli and that it is not his duty to resolve it. When a teacher, who is involved with his wife’s fundraising activities, continues to accuse him of not doing enough for the local community Aydin undermines the integrity of his self-proclaimed benevolence by mocking the teacher with a facetious non sequitur: “Our ultimate fate is to be deceived by everything we attempt. I make brilliant plans each morning and then fool about all day.”

With Winter Sleep director Ceylan once again demonstrates his ability to make us relate to his characters’ superficial victories and lingering losses despite the almost otherworldly setting. It is not often that you find a slow-paced three-and-a-half-hour long non-English speaking movie that’s been rated by tens of thousands of people on movie sites like IMDB.

Part of the film’s brilliance lies in its honest and warm depiction of the many nuances of Turkish culture without descending into clichéd tropes along the way. Yes, a lot of tea is drunk, both as refreshment and as traditional social lubricant, and one of the central characters is a local imam, but such detail form part of an incidental richness that imbues the film, rather than any one-dimensional attempts at making a social statement. Even the aloof and ever so pompous Aydin, despite his transparent use of snide pseudo-intellectual observations to establish his social superiority, exhibits enough remorse and frailty that he is never reduced to a mere caricature.

Of course a more cynical view would be that the luxury of indulging in such a lengthy homage to one of Anton Chekhov’s austere short stories (The Wife), is a reflection of the director’s and maybe even our own intellectual pretensions. There have been worse reasons to like a movie.