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Paean to Bourgeois Boredom: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ‘Winter Sleep’

Paean to Bourgeois Boredom: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ‘Winter Sleep’

Winter SleepWinter_Sleep_(Poster)

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Written by Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, based on stories by Anton Chekhov
Turkey, 2014

Turkey is a place of complicated ethos and Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meandering three-hour work attempts to obliquely capture some of this complexity where his previous films would simply obliterate the vast swathes of Turkey’s predominantly “oriental”, non-secular, less Cannes-friendly identity. With this umpteenth filmic attempt at decorticating the ennui of the westernised, urban Turkish middle class, Ceylan, the poster boy for the part of Turkey that views itself as a precinct of Europe, and a Cannes darling, eventually succeeded in winning the Palme d’Or. Ceylan has been one of the directors ‘subscribed’ to Cannes (think the Dardenne brothers, Kiarostami, Von Trier, recently joined by newly anointed Xavier Dolan, directors whose films tend to be selected not on individual merit but on the directors’ pre-existing reputation) ever since his first short film and this, his longest and most conversation-heavy piece got him the big prize.

Ceylan’s signature Instagrammy visual style – once you have seen one of his films, you know what all of them look and feel like – is very much at evidence in Winter Sleep. The film is beautiful and visually perfect, alternating the luxurious, ominous hibernal exteriors of the mesmerising Cappadocia countryside with cosy, inglenook interiors, where the contrast of soft pastels and sharp lighting works flawlessly. The storyline is itself somewhat of a reflection of the barren Anatolian landscape – minor spurts of drama are followed by episodes of languorous indecision and episodic tableaux.

The main character is a hotelier and landlord by the name of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), formerly a thespian and now a part-time local newspaper columnist, who, along with his wife and sister, inhabits some of the rock-hewn habitations making up his hotel. Aydin prefers to dedicate himself to intellectual pursuits while his loyal overseer Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) takes care of the business. Aydin’s wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) spends her time trying to fund-raise for a local education charity, while his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), a divorced former translator occasionally acts as a critic of Aydin’s columns. Life plods along peacefully on the surface, except that both the sister and the wife find Aydin overbearing and patronising, while one family of indebted tenants feel slighted because of a recent rent-collecting incident.

185492_newsdetailAnd this about sums up the drama of the plot…Simply put, along the course of the three-hour film various permutations of the tenant family’s bruised honour, the wife’s resentment at Aydin’s condescension and the sister’s bitterness at life in general are played out, culminating in Nihal’s attempt to give away some of Aydin’s money to the tenants, an act of part revenge and part charity, and Aydin becoming jealous, then drunk and realising he loves and cherishes his wife.

The film, however, treats this all but simply and a good share of the credit for the Palm d’Or likely goes to the exquisite characterisation of Aydin as a totally credible, sophisticated middle-aged intellectual, who is both generous and patriarchal, kindly and cold. The acting by Haluk Bilginer is just as nuanced and mature, with occasional theatrical flares which however befit his mercurial presence. While the exchanges with Necla are witty and charged, the weaker streak in this trio is the wife, played by a stereotypical Ceylan female lead à la Ebru Ceylan in “Climates”– doe-eye, demure and classically beautiful – who, as the typical bored upper middle-class housewife, even though she lacks for nothing, suffers from her husband’s lack of recognition and respect, the need for self-realisation, personal fulfilment, etc…While this trope is a hard-coded cliché of Western drama, Ceylan takes it extremely seriously and makes it the centrepiece of the more melodramatic and lachrymose sequences. Here the nuanced modernity of Aydin’s personage clashes with the clearly Chekhovian elements of the wife’s not-exactly-suffering. Another jarring Chekhovian vestige is the hunting lodge-drinking binge sequence that operates a deus ex machina sea change in the protagonist’s world-view, transforming him into a remorseful, almost obsequious husband.

Apart from the existential irks of the bourgeois in a rural setting, some key secondary themes are grazed, such as the chasm between the Turkey of the urban, westernised, secular classes and that of the traditional, rural dwellers, who seem to almost exist in parallel universes centuries apart. The latter are embodied the likes of Fatma, the maid whose face is barely registered by the camera and by the tenant family facing eviction. One of them, an imam, is among the most overtly religious characters in Ceylan’s work and the film’s take on the place of religion is telling – vexed by the uncouthness of the imam’s family, Aydin reflects on the social role of religion, even though it is irrelevant to him, in his newspaper column. While interested in the affairs of the village folk on a meta level, Aydin is depicted as an urban outsider. The gap, it seems, between these two parallel worlds is unbridgeable – not even Nihal’s mild-mannered visit to the imam with an envelope full of cash, manages to broker some kind of rapprochement.

At the end, the rapprochement between the estranged husband and wife may or may not take place, the ending fittingly ambiguous. To Ceylan’s credit, despite the repetitive pace and verbosity of Winter Sleep, the sleepy beauty of the Anatolian winter lulls the viewer into a sort of quiet and cumulative enjoyment.

Zornitsa Staneva