By Patrick Z. McGavin
The festival is over, and the best films from Cannes embody what truly matters: the ability to move backward and forward, projecting a sense of the moment, live bulletins of a country’s pulse and state of mind. With his scalding and magisterial new work, Winter Sleep, the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan walked off with the Palme d’Or.
In his acceptance speech, Ceylan dedicated the film to the young people of Turkey who have lost their lives in the last year protesting the country’s unnerving political repression and withholding of essential freedom. Because of its three-hour and 16-minute running time, the film had just one official screening, on Friday, May 16th. At the screening, Ceylan and the rest of his artistic delegation wore black protest bands.
Winter Sleep is the most political of the director’s six features. The movie’s social grievances and class conflicts sharply distill the conflict between the professional, bourgeois and modernist state and the encroaching fundamentalist strain. As outsiders, it’s hard not to sense a particular cultural schizophrenia. (My friend visited Istanbul last year after Cannes, and he was immediately struck by the disparate attitudes of the women. The young and educated wore provocative, sexually alluring Western dress, in strong contrast to other women he saw that were fully covered.)
Ceylan developed the story and script in close, even contentious, collaboration with his very gifted wife, Ebru (the two played opposite each other in his earlier film, Climates). From its visual precision to the emotional believability of the characters and their sad, beautiful and emphatic faces, I was knocked out by his original and astonishing visual syntax. The movie needs time to breathe and take hold.
Like all of the director’s movies, Winter Sleep is suffused with a painterly beauty and Ceylan has a fluent, innate ability to ground his protagonists against telling and evocative landscapes. He has a great feel for tableau imagery, like the tactile and immersive opening images of mist hovering over the rocky steppes of the spectacular mountain landscapes of Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia.
The director dedicated the work to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire. The movie’s protagonist, Aydin (played by the astounding Haluk Bilginer), combines characteristics of Lear, Prospero and Prince Hal. The name of the family hotel he runs is significantly named Othello. From his father, he inherited wealth and vast tracts of land. He appears rational and benevolent, an aesthete who earned renown as a film actor and now writes newspaper columns and is gathering material for his magnum opus, a cultural history of Turkish theater.
Winter Sleep is divided into three dominant movements. The first part underlines the extent of Aydin’s fiefdom, his subjects, and how cold-blooded and mercurial he is in his business dealings as he directs his wrath against a family of impoverished tenants unable to pay rent. (His top lieutenant, or enforcer, actually metes out the punishment).
A young boy, furious at the embarrassment and shame to which his family is subjected, responds with his own violent action. The consequences lay bare an existential dilemma that open the possibility of Aydin as either an imperial fool (“more sinned against than sinning”) or flagrant hypocrite.
As Ceylan’s superb previous work Once Upon a Time in Anatolia used genre material to meditate on the most serious moral and existential concerns, the new work counters expectation in a more radical and astounding way, through its form and construction. The film’s long middle, comprising about half the running time, reframes the action, subtly altering subjectivity, space and time.
The disruption is marked by the most transporting single moment I saw at Cannes, a radical cut as the young boy who committed the act of vandalism collapses in trying to make his contrition toward Aydin to a sudden and enthralling action of man and nature as Aydin’s workers try valiantly to corral a wild horse.
The temporal cut foreshadows the severe shift in mood and tone, as the focus of the films turns toward Aydin’s acrimonious and difficult relationships with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag) who is reeling from a divorce, and his much younger wife, Nihal (the astoundingly beautiful Melisa Sozen), openly rebelling against her husband’s controlling nature.
Instantly the focus of landscapes, rock formations and weather is given a wholly different range of expression in a series of private, withering and extended scenes, lasting up to 20 minutes and filled with the kind of baroque, caustic and corrosive language more prevalent in the works of Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes.
The trademark of those two great artists, the poisoned couple, takes center stage—a form of annihilation, as the pain, regret and disgust are made explicit in the tense body inflections and hurtful exchanges. The sister charges that Aydin never lives up to the privileges he was bestowed. The wife is far more cutting and damning, finding him unbearable.
Ceylan is more direct and expansive, concerned with how language distorts and conceals, the riffs and counterarguments yielding a sustained and musical flow, despite the bitterness and rancor. It’s a different kind of poetry, of faces and the architecture of bodies as the camera remains steadfast and locked in. Regardless, the imagery beguiles, like an extraordinary moment with Nihal’s face illuminated from the flare of a fire, her very presence more radiant and stunning.
Like the greatest filmmakers, Ceylan is both elliptical and lapidary. The work is beautifully constructed, but like Chekhov, appearances and illusions invite the viewer to cast about and glean from looks and exchanges deeper significance. Ceylan’s cryptic though elastic style casually hooks you.
What makes the journey extraordinary is not finding answers but submitting to the ride.