With each film added to his canon, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan proves again and again why he is at the apex of world cinema, possibly joined at the point only by the United Kingdom’s Steve McQueen. Every film that Ceylan has done since embarking in the medium has built off the prior one. Even his 2008 film, Three Monkeys, while not a great film (a mere well wrought melodrama), saw the director expand his visual command of the screen. His last film, 2011’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia was majestic, and the greatest film of his career, as well one of the best films of the 21st Century. His latest, 2014’s Winter Sleep (Kis Uykusu), is its rival in quality- better and more intimately rich in some ways, but also a bit longer and less focused in other ways. In short, it’s a lateral movement of sorts, but going from Mount Everest to K2 is hardly a disappointment, as Winter Sleep won that year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
The 196 minute long film (and a breezy 196 minutes, at that) scorches into the familial lives of three well to do phonies in a Turkish town in Cappadocia (a high central steppe in Turkey): an aging former stage actor and armchair liberal turned local artsweekly columnist (for a paper called Voices Of The Steppe), as well as would be writer of a tome on the history of Turkish theater; his once devoted but now insecure and gorgeous young slacktivist wife; and his cynical silver spooned, resentful, and lazy sister. In a sense, it’s difficult to determine which of the three ne’er do wells is the most ethically repugnant.
The actor is named Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), and he and his sister have inherited his father’s mountain top hotel retreat, the Hotel Othello, and lived a life of emotional detachment from all the lesser locals. Apparently the hotel is a coveted getaway for folks from Europe and Asia, and provides the family with a good income; enough to employ a handful of people. Aydin and the guests speak English in a few scenes, as that is the lingua franca of the times. The hotel, like much of the local town, seems to be carved into and out of the odd stone formations abounding, giving much of the set pieces an odd fusion look of being part 21st Century (the characters can look online using laptops) and part Bedrock- from the 1960s American television retro cartoon The Flintstones, about a Stone Age family. Aside from the hotel, Aydin’s wealth from his acting career has let him invest in much local real estate, which he rents out, in the nearby town of Garip, and leaves under the charge of his henchman/lackey Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Hidayet threatens renters, calls repossessors, and generally harasses the tenants while Aydin feigns no knowledge of such actions, trying to stand above it all, even as he orders Hidayet to ‘take care’ of problems- usually unenumerated, although, early on in the film, we see the pitfalls of Aydin’s grand plan of ‘plausible deniability.’
One day, as Aydin is driven through the region by Hidayet (of course, the grand man cannot drive) a stone is tossed at his car and smashes in the window not far from Aydin’s face. In a Hollywood film, this would be the immediate marker of a delve into violence and the reasons behind it. We’d get confrontations and social handwringing, and much melodrama. But, this is a filmmaker who is an artist. After the window is broken, the car stops, and a small boy, named Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), runs but is caught by Hidayet when the boy falls in a river. The men drive the wet boy home, to confront his father, and this is where we get some backstory, as the family are renters from Aydin, and Hidayet had sicced a collection agency on them, who repossessed furniture, a refrigerator, and the family television. The father, an ex-con and borderline psychopath named Ismail (Nejat Isler), was beaten up by police in the process of repossession, just weeks after release from jail for stabbing a pervert who stole his wife’s undergarments off their clothesline. Ismail and Hidayet dickwave until Ismail’s younger brother, an unctuous imam named Hamdi (Serhat Kiliç), intervenes, then later tries to get Ilyas to apologize to Aydin by kissing his hand at Aydin’s hotel. Aydin feigns reluctance, and Ilyas is repulsed, then faints before he can kiss the hand. Aydin then pens a column ripping into the phoniness of the community, their silly customs, and the imam himself. Yet, he is as big a phony as they are, for instead of simply absolving the debts owed him, he lies to the imam and says he needs to ‘talk to Hidayet,’ even though he- not his lackey- is the man behind all the machinations to evict them and repossess their property, and could easily overlook the broken car window, whose 170 lira cost is a pittance to him but an eye popping burden to the imam’s clan.
His sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), recently divorced, reads the column, and then excoriates her brother as a know-it-all do-nothing, and while it is clear that he is a hack, as a columnist (and likely was a hack actor, as well) and she is right on target, and this leads into a lengthy conversation between the two, wherein we get the underlying revulsion the two feel for each other, we feel no natural inclination toward her, either. He then nails her as a lazy and bored dreamer, and member of the idle rich, who threw away her marriage and a husband she excoriates as evil. Both are right about each other, but while Aydin may be an intellectual hack, he at least tries, at times, however effetely, to improve his and others’ lots, Necla is the more reprehensible, as she seems just a snarky bullying coward who doesn’t want to do a damned thing for anyone but herself. Necla similarly feels scorn for Aydin’s wife, Nihal (the stunning Melisa Sözen), yet feels her idle dreaming is suited for Aydin, three decades her senior, and a man Nihal seems to have married due to being a fan of his acting. In turn, she is Aydin’s trophy wife, and rebelling at the thought of such, devoting herself to silly political causes in the area, to ward off the loneliness and boredom of her loveless marriage. She falls easy prey to a local teacher and con man, Levent (Nadir Saribacak), who is out to line his own pockets with the money Nihal’s fundraising efforts for better school facilities brings. Nihal calls Aydin controlling and condescending, while he laughs off her life as a bored neurotic and spoilt child. Both are right, just as both are right about Necla, and she of them.
Aydin had potential and wasted it. Nihal has youth and beauty, but nothing else- certainly not good sense. Necla has nothing but wealth and her classism. All three suckle their flaws as if something heroic, whereas all are pathetic. Necla, after calling her ex-husband evil, says she wishes she had not left, and forced him to confront his ‘evil’ to be a better man. Nihal thinks such is dumb, and Aydin mocks his sister’s inane philosophies.
The marriage of Aydin and Nihal reaches its own Rubicon when Nihal hosts a fundraiser at the hotel, and Aydin finally shows interest in the project, but is kicked out of the meeting by Nihal, who acts like a spoiled child and feels he is out to undermine her, even as he seems to genuinely want to help. He is hurt by this, and leaves, then, after the meeting is over, he returns and decides to help out financially and checks the books for the group. Nihal is an inept manager, and her lack of accurate record keeping could get her in tax trouble, yet she sees Aydin’s concern as butting in, so he relents, and says he will leave her alone and spend the winter in Istanbul on business. He claims she is being dishonest, for she idolized him, at first, then scorned him for her error, when she found out he was just a man. Again, as in all these scenes, the person speaking is almost always correct in their claims against the other, yet they do not profess love. While Sözen does a very good job of acting, hers is a role we’ve seen before in many movies, so the scene gets dominated by the sheer brilliance of the acting of Bilginer, who in these scenes, reminds one of the later roles of Robert De Niro, both in facial looks and faux coy expression, as well as bodily movements. One senses his arrogance and condescension, even as he smirks, smiles, and is technically 100% correct in what he says. Nihal is then seemingly left alone with the international guests as Necla has, too, decamped, presumably to reunite with her ex-husband. We don’t see her in the film again, but the distinct feeling is that the repugnant parasitic dreamer has returned to her ex-husband, likely to sponge off of him till he casts her away again.
The next day, snow covers the area, and Hidayet drives Aydin to the train station, bound for Istanbul. Aydin does not lift a bag, and, instead, lets Hidayet carry all the heavy bags, which causes him to slip on the wet tiles of the train station. Initially, Aydin plans on leaving when the train arrives, but delays allow himto change his mind, so he and Hidayet go to the farm of his friend Suavi (Tamer Levent), who is to go hunting with Levent, who stops by, the next morning. Aydin orders Hidayet to return to the hotel and tell no one that he has not left for Istanbul, but then we get a revelatory scene of Hidayet leaving the three other men alone, and almost immediately calling the hotel maid (whom he seems to be intimate with) of Aydin’s change of plans and for her to keep it secret (which we suspect she won’t). This suggests that Aydin has absolutely no one who really respects him, not even his lackey. The three men spend the evening drinking and bullshitting, and Levent excoriates Aydin for not using his money and political influence to help the area recover from an earthquakes a few years earlier. Thus, he reveals to Aydin and Suavi that he really is the snide pseudo-Communist Aydin suspected him of being. He also pretentiously quotes Shakespeare- an act which aids in a purgative bout of puking by Aydin, and undermines the credibility of his worldview. The great thing in this film is that, unlike in a Hollywood film, we see that there is no hero in the film, and the person who would be most expected to be the ethical paragon is just another fraud.
Meanwhile, alone, and aware that Aydin was right that her fundraising was pointless, Nihal impulsively goes to the home of Ismail and Hamdi, and speaks with Hamdi, then gives him the money (almost $6000) Aydin had donated to her project, to help pay off their debts, including their rent to Aydin, as well as medical bills for Ilyas, who developed pneumonia after falling into the river, and possibly to buy the home they are in. This is an important scene, even if it is the weakest and most predictable scene in the film, as we know that, as soon as we see Ismail and the fireplace, the money is sure to be burnt. Nonetheless, the scene establishes that, despite her excoriations of her husband, Nihal is just as big a phony as Aydin. She simply tosses money at a problem rather than dealing with the root cause- her husband’s exploitation of the renters in town. All she really cares of is assuaging her own guilty liberalism, and because we have suspected this, the viewer soon absolutely roots for Ismail to burn the blood money, no matter how tritely it all plays out, for, just as Hamdi is about to accept it, in walks resentful Ismail, who tosses the bills in the fire, to Nihal’s immature and dumbly unexpected horror. Her shock and horror shows how utterly naïve and lacking in understanding of ‘real people’ she is of most of life, so while her critiques of Aydin may ring true, to a degree, we also see how much of her own flaws she projects on her husband and all others. Also, the fact that she is now committing a crime, embezzlement of funds from a charity, seems to have completely gone by her cognizance.
After the hunting, in which Aydin bags a rabbit, in a wonderfully symbolic moment where we see the animal bloodied but breathing, he has Hidayet stop the car, and from a hillside he looks down on the town of Garip with a smug confidence, then returns to the hotel, as Nihal watches him alone through a window. He looks up at her as a voiceover declares that he will not leave her, and that despite their lack of love, he will remain true. He then starts his book on the history of Turkish theater, as snow falls all about his hillside hotel.
The film has a number of small scenes, like the rabbit shooting, that have greater import than most will recognize. Also, like the money burning scene, the film has a scene where Aydin releases a wild horse that he has paid to be caught, and we see this coming from the moment of its capture, but, although we know the trite metaphor and scene that lies ahead, the scene that starts it all is worth the banality. When the horse is captured, we see it in a river, writhing to get back on land, exhausted, as it pulls itself up, then huffs and puffs in exhaustion, and this mirrors the scene wherein Ilyas is emotionally forced to apologize to Aydin, yet his own inner torments overwhelm him to a faint, as both the boy and horse find their good but phony selves trapped until finally freed. Another revelatory scene comes when Hidayet explains to a guest that the man seen in a photo with Aydin really is famed movie star Omar Sharif, who supposedly shot a film with Aydin at the hotel. Hidayet takes pleasure in touting his boss’s fame and the people he met. Yet, when he asks his master to confirm this, Aydin seems nonchalant about it all, suggesting that he is not as detached and shallow as others think, and that he may have hope to improve, after all.
Technically, the film lacks an English dubbed track, and we get white subtitles instead. For the most part, this is fine, but a few scenes tend to blanche out the wording. Why directors don’t insist on gold subtitles is still a thing I do not get. Aside from subtitles taking the eye off the films stock in trade (its visuals) why would you not try to compensate for that distraction by minimizing the losses it causes? Whether this was a subtitling provided by Ceylan or Netflix (where I saw the film) I do not know.
The phenomenally well scripted film, wherein even ‘common folk’ are capable of ruminating on things above the mundane and banal, was written by Ceylan and his wife, Ebru Ceylan, supposedly based upon a few (unnamed) short stories of Anton Chekhov, but the stories of Cekhov have a different feel than his plays- they are weirder and more satirical. This film resonates more with the plays and small dramas. That stated, there are two other figures that loom far larger than Chekhov, especially to a Western filmgoer. The first is the later works of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, as the ennui and self-defeats of the protagonists most clearly seem derived from The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But, even more clearly than O’Neill or Chekhov, or even Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (oft invoked as a Ceylan influence), is the figure of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. His view of life and dramatic obsessions, infuses the film from start to end. Yet, despite the taut and incisive script, the film and its personal dance between the mostly phony characters, is the inverse of Bergman’s dialogue, Whereas Bergman’s characters sledgehammered each other with the weight of their pronouncements, the slashing remarks aimed at cutting each other down that are uttered by the protagonists in this film are mostly offhand and slight. The real weight and opprobrium of judgment comes from the long and hard glares and glances the characters give each other. What is not said hurts far more than what is said.
Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki captures Cappadocia’s beauty but never overwhelms the film with it. The landscapes stay in the background, almost as if a near alien world, and the lingering looks of the characters’ faces predominate over the exterior scenes. We this get a vastity balanced by an intimacy and this visual seesaw keeps the viewer watching scenes that, as mentioned, sometimes briefly dip into triteness. The film’s core is a non-diegetic bit from Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20, and some critics have claimed this is a direct nod to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, but this is a stretch as the films have different aims, approaches, and denouements. The world at the end of Bresson’s film is tenuous and possibly necrotic, whereas the end of Ceylan’s film is resolute and steered toward the living.
Critics of the film have disparaged its length and claimed unnecessary dialogue, but these are merely the emotional reactions of critics not used to being forced to think for themselves, but they also have misconstrued many things. Some critics contend that Aydin was indifferent to the less well off people in Garip, and all too eager to allow Hidayet to handle his issues with his renters, but this isn’t always so. Yes, Aydin is a bit cowardly and hypocritical, but he also has reason to be so, for we see how obsequious and duplicitous Hamdi is, and how violently psychopathic Ismail is, as well his son. We see what a snake Levent is and how two faced even Hidayet really is, and Aydin knows all this, as surely as he knows the flaws of his wife and sister. He even surely sees his own flaws and limitations. It’s not that he’s indifferent to others, just that he realizes his own impotence in ameliorating their woes, and sees the utter futility that Levent and Nihal bear in agonal twists that he has chosen to sidestep, thereby be free to pursue his book and remainder of life.
Would that we were all as capable as Aydin, for, despite his flaws, he is there, he is standing, he is moving, now, and still. This is the sort of lesson Hollywood films need to enact, yet cannot even learn. Excelsior. And in excelsis.