Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is a devastating portrait of a man who tries to do good but radiates an icy chill.
A Man For All Seasons by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Inspired by the works of Chekhov, Voltaire, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, and underscored by Schubert’s haunting Sonata in A Major, Nuri Bilge’s Ceylan’s seventh feature film is his best yet. And after the taut murder mystery of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Winter Sleep is a return to the delicate relationship intrigues of Distant and Climates. Relocated to the wintry steppes of Cappadocia, it’s a masterful and atmospheric rumination on the nature of man and his place in the world – laying bare his self-delusions and his philanthropic duty to others. The desolate tale of one frosty man and his ice-cold relationships, but nevertheless a real Turkish delight.
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a retired actor, hotelier and landlord who lives in a cave in Cappadocia with his reclusive wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and sister Necla (Demet Akbag). When a boy throws a stone through his car window, he pays a visit to his parents – struggling tenants humiliated by the recent confiscation of their television and fridge. It’s a family feud that runs and runs, sparking a debate with Necla and Nihal on the nature of evil and the importance of resisting it. And the disagreement with his tenants is enough for Aydin to write an article about in the local paper, mulling over philanthropy and a request he has received for money for a rural arts community. His wife Nihal also runs a charitable organisation, repairing classrooms and making schools fit for teaching. But it’s a voluntary vocation she wants Aydin to steer clear of, as he attempts to control the world around him while keeping himself very firmly at the centre.
Living in the Hotel Othello and surrounded by theatre posters of Caligula and Antony And Cleopatra, there’s not only a theatrical bent to Aydin, but also a question of leadership, power and its abuse that runs throughout Winter Sleep. As Aydin writes his weekly column, waxing philosophical on evil, philanthropy and man’s concern for for one’s fellow man, Ceylan achieves a startling feat – bringing the metaphysical importance of literature to the big screen. It’s not without some hefty performances from veteran Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer and ensemble, a weighty running time and an erudite script that teases out the intricacies of their personalities and relationships. But nevertheless, Winter Sleep remains undoubtedly cinematic – with its vistas of smoking fields in the white-rock landscape of the Anatolian steppe and its striking moments of visual impact – such as Aydin out in the snow in his commedia dell’arte mask.
Writing an encyclopaedic compendium of Turkish theatre, Aydin is a performer and academic – undoubtedly an avatar for the director, but also cut down to size as the self-appointed “expert” on society and morality as well as theatre. He’s an obliging man – answering one of his guest’s complaints about the misleading photos of horses on his website by catching a wild Anatolian pony (which, in turn, becomes something of a metaphor for man’s wild nature, restrained and then ultimately released). And he considers himself too soft on his hard-up tenants, not evicting them when they can’t pay the rent. He’s the king of the small kingdom that surrounds him, a philanthropist who donates a large sum of money to his wife’s charity. And yet beneath it all, he’s also a bullish manipulator – giving the remonstrating imam women’s slippers for his bootless feet and condescendingly allowing the boy who threw the stone to kiss his hand by way of apology.
Aydin might seem himself a model to the community but he ends up cutting down all those around him – unable to live up to the moral high ground he philosophises about in his weekly newspaper column. Winter Sleep is a gentle satire on the mores of the middle classes – his sister Necla is just as fiercely intelligent, but preoccupied by her new maid putting her glasses from Istanbul in the dishwasher. But Ceylan’s great skill in Winter Sleep is to undercut the bluster and bravado of everyday behaviour, questioning the ethics of the “good man” – who ends up skulking behind doors, and controlling those around him with money. With intense performances from its ensemble cast, and an enjoyably languid pace, Winter Sleep is a mercilessly thought-provoking look at the high principles we hold and the endless self-deception that goes into maintaining them.
Winter Sleep is released on 21st November 2014 in the UK