Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s second film Clouds of May (1999) ends with a dedication to Anton Chekhov. It is perhaps the most explicit literary reference in the body of work of a director who has always drawn extensively and skillfully from literature, and Russian classics in particular. Winter Sleep, his latest film unspooling in competition in Cannes, takes the literature connection a few giant steps further and presents a remarkably rich, layered exploration of flawed human beings through a long series of beautifully written monologues and tirades. While Ceylan’s usual mastery of lighting and composition is exemplified bountifully throughout, the real power of this majestic film lies in its complex themes and characters.
The story itself is surprisingly simple, yet intriguing. Aydin, a wealthy hotel owner/writer/former actor struggles to deal with his sister Necla, who is trying to recover from a painful divorce, his young wife Nihal, who devotes herself to charity work, and a troublesome tenant, whose son causes a little crisis by throwing a stone at his car. In a very confident move, Ceylan leaves these narrative strands aside for a long while and spends most of the lengthy (but fully justified) running time on the confrontations between the family members. The central conflict arises from Aydin’s quietly commanding, arrogant, and self-approving character. He is detached from everything around him, preferring to stick to his own ways and reaffirming his own virtues at the expense of his relationships with the people who are supposed to be dearest to him. That is not to say he is always the one at fault; the brilliance of the film’s screenplay can be attributed to the complexity and emotional richness of its characters. Everyone in Winter Sleep is equally flawed and virtuous at once. While Aydin’s know-it-all attitude becomes oppressive for Nihal and Necla, there is no denying that he is indeed a well-educated, cultivated man. Similarly, even though Nihal’s involvement in charity work can be seen as a consequence of her emotional void or an attempt at self-justification, her suffering is sincere, her despair is well-grounded. Necla also has her own problems: she tries to create meaning out of her passivity and finds it difficult to admit even to herself that her nonchalance is not as noble or productive as she wants to believe it is. These issues, however, do not mean that she is not an intelligent, honest woman. The film offers no solutions to any of its protagonists, neither does it present the audience with a side to take. It is this very ambiguity that makes Ceylan’s demanding film incredibly absorbing.
There is a wealth of small details that give the whole psychological process a social dimension. A major component of Aydin’s arrogance (and of Nihal’s guilt) is the vast difference between their privileged position and the miserable rural life they come into contact with. Ceylan delves into every single dimension of this socioeconomic divide; the tenants live under a very different set of moral values, use different words, have different ways of behaving and communicating, approach religion from a different perspective. Aydin’s self-claimed superiority over this rural community ignites heated discussions between him and the two ladies. These discussions cover a large number of rather hefty topics ranging from empathy and tolerance to guilt and alienation. It is an exceptionally ambitious task to tackle all these major concepts at once, yet Ceylan lives up to it by building each significant conversation with supreme care and attention to detail. It is because of this patient approach and the masterful use of language that none of the big statements the characters make sound pretentious or out of context. On paper, Winter Sleep may look like a dry lecture in which every participant expresses himself in capital letters. Yet the film delivers these significant ideas with such deep contextualization, grace and sensitivity that it never becomes less subtle or cinematic than Ceylan’s older, more overtly formally daring films.
Winter Sleep shares much in common with Ceylan’s earlier work, but manages to build on these familiar elements without creating a sense of repetition. The picturesque landscape of Cappadocia is reminiscent of the Anatolian steppe in 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (it is actually geographically located in the same region), but it does have its distinctive qualities. Even during the harshest of winters, Cappadocia maintains a dreamy, appealingly languorous character. Increasing abundance of dialogue has also been a fixture of Ceylan’s films since 2008’s Three Monkeys, but this is the first time the wordiness of the film goes beyond ordinary daily talk and gradually becomes more and more literary. It might be a tad more difficult to grasp all the subtleties of the dialogue if you need to read subtitles throughout the film, but I should note that the conversations remain incredibly natural, clear and fluid throughout despite their obvious density and weight.
Another recurring element in Ceylan’s films is his minimal but effective use of music. He usually prefers existing music (most often classical pieces) and this is also the case here. Given the extraordinary scale of the film and all the tragedies or dilemmas the characters try to deal with, the music in the film comes across as surprisingly subdued, even modest. Yet, this is perhaps the most suitable way of using music in such a film considering the fact that the focus remains on the internalized struggles of Aydin, Nihal, and Necla. Despite all the things they say, they keep much to themselves, their emotions are never heightened or underlined by a melodramatic or tragic sensibility. The remarkable ensemble of actors also help establish a similar balance between emotional distance and personal resonance. While the entire film revolves around their alienation and isolation, it is unexpectedly accessible thanks to its fully-developed characters. Since this sprawling, epic film is constructed as an intimate chamber piece, it is possible to get to know every single character really well and be absorbed by their psychological journeys. Ceylan does not simply seek identification; there is no evident attempt to elicit a strong reaction from the audience in this profoundly emotional film. Nevertheless, the viewing experience ends up being very involving and emotionally powerful because we do care for these individuals after spending time in their company.
In its last half hour, Winter Sleep takes an unexpected turn after Nihal and Aydin drift apart. But even after their separation, neither is able to move forward or find solace in solitude. This is perhaps the most devastating aspect of the film; the slow accumulation of guilt, despair, and sadness throughout Winter Sleep does not weaken the bonds between these people who need and love each other deeply. They are unable to break out of their hypnotic, dangerously beautiful languor and move away, yet they cannot lose themselves completely in their painful but quiet existence, either. They have to oscillate endlessly between love and hatred, self-justification and guilt, or arrogance and empathy.