Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Winter Sleep, Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
I wish I had something new and exciting to say about this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or, Winter Sleep. It’s a long and very beautiful film that revels in the sumptuousness of the cinema. It’s about as Shakespearean as the cinema gets in its epic form and story, but unlike a Shakespearean play, at the movie’s end, the mise-en-scène is fully intact. Unlike a Shakespeare play where the stage is strewn with bodies and blood as the evidence of the drama that has unfolded before us, all of the desire, destruction, and revelation has happened internally, behind the deep brown eyes of the characters, in the cold air between a husband and his unhappy wife.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014

The most devastating moment of Winter Sleep comes when a poor drunkard, recently returned home from prison, throws a great wad of 100 lire notes in the fire. The protagonist, Aydin, a 60 something wealthy writer who is also filled with arrogance and disinterest in those not his social equal, is the poor man’s landlord. Aydin’s beautiful young wife decides that benevolence is the solution to her husband’s arrogance and ills. In a far less shocking scene, Aydin warns the lovely Nihal of the complexity of charitable acts and the deceit of those who minister them. We don’t believe him anymore than she does because his warning is delivered in anger, perhaps as a gesture to control her, perhaps because of his jealousy of her life away from him. It’s difficult to know his motives. But when she decides to visit the family in the village below who cannot pay the rent, only to have her gesture thrown into the fire, her lesson, like ours, is moral and very real. As she defies her haughty and wise but unflinching husband, she learns a moral tale the hard way: you can’t just give to the poor and expect everything to be better. It doesn’t work like that.

Aydin and Necla discussing his writing
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
What I loved most about the film was the dark, often firelit mise-en-scène of closeups. Much of the  “drama” of the film takes place in conversations between Aydin and Nihal and his recently divorced sister, Necla as well as the visitors to the hotel —Othello House — that he runs in remote Anatolia. The beautiful closeups watch faces lit by fire light and intense dark eyes allowing us to read the emotion, if not always the thoughts and motivations of the characters. Ceylan uses a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and blacks out much of the background while the closeups consume every breath of the screen. This is a daring use of cinemascope if ever there was one. The other, most exquisite aspect of Winter Sleep is Ceylan’s editing. He has a practice of cutting, quite boldly, between scenes before they are finished, with a conversation acting as a sound bridge to another scene, and a shift or pause in conversation once the spatial transition is established.

Ceylan not only stretches the film medium, but in its 3h15minute length,  he pushses us to a different kind of film viewing. We remember, it’s a film in which very little happens, in which the action consists of the characters slow revellation of themselves, and with themselves their morality, their politics, their flaws, their vulnerabilities, through conversations with each other. All this talking, reflecting, being pensive isn’t exactly cinematic action. So he really asks a lot of his viewer: we have to go in, sit back and let go to the fairy tale in a castle on a mountain —which turns out to be not such a fairytale afterall. The drawback is that like the Chekov stories the film is based on, there is a lot of talking, therefore a lot of reading subtitles. Those seeing Winter Sleep subtitled in their own language may not have this difficulty, but I missed a lot of the gorgeous imagery because I was distracted by reading subtitles.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
Ultimately, I was also taken by the brilliance of Winter Sleep’s epic reach. Like Shakespeare and Chekov and Dostoyevsky and Voltaire that inspired the film, the contemporary politics of Turkey are engaged as the characters struggle with the most intimate lives. Aydin writes about religion in his weekly newspaper column —that as his sister points out, is much more to satisfy his ego than to inform the readers. In conversation and disagreement, the film then raises the question of the split between religious and non-Religious Turks, the difficulties caused by the gap between rich and poor, educated and illiterate.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, 2014
All said, it’s a fine winter’s tale and worthy winner of the Palme d’Or, but I am not convinced that it is Ceylan’s masterpiece. My favorite film of his is still the first one I saw, Uzak, a film that is more human in every way. 

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