Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan took home the Palme d'Or this year with his outstanding achievement, Winter Sleep. No surprise here at Cannes, where this 3 ½ hour film was the buzz all week. "It goes beyond the others," said one journalist. "It makes you think about so many things." Or as Jane Campion, head of the jury, explained this evening: "I saw it as a Chekhov story where the characters torture each other. It has a beautiful rhythm that takes you in."
Winter Sleep takes you in from the first shot. The film opens on a misty field, where a man is sitting alone on the rocks, vapor rising through the grass. The camera follows this man as he steadily crosses the field and up a hill towards a hotel built into a cave. We are in Cappadocia, the stunning land of fairy chimneys and caves, the site of the first Christian churches and one of the most striking places on the planet. The film promises to be the same, in the domain of cinema. For the next three and a half hours, we are in for a philosophical and psychological journey with this man, an actor-cum-landowner-cum-writer named Aydin, and his entourage: his beautiful younger wife Nihal and his sister Necla, recently divorced. Each scene will equal the simplicity and beauty of the first: from the interior shots of this sumptuous cave-hotel to the snowy peaks of Cappadocia, with horses running wild, captured by cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki.
What carries the film is the brilliance of the dialogue. Each scene is a charged cross-fire about a philosophical or emotional issue, applicable to all of us, as each character argues his or her point. Clearly influenced by Chekhov, Ceylan constructs his characters as complex people with regrets, lost hopes and perpetual dreams, all struggling to attain (in hindsight) integrity with themselves. "The only achievement I have is my stomach," says the landowner's manager, rubbing his stomach. "I wasted my youth marrying you," says the beautiful wife. "Oh yes, I am writing a book on Turkish theater," says our leading character, the landowning intellectual, who has yet, we learn, to write a sentence. Some lines actually seem straight from A Cherry Orchard: "When did the house get so empty?" "How did that child I once was turn into this alcoholic old man?"
Three and a half hours might seem like a long stretch, but if I -- a restless viewer, who normally cannot bear anything longer than 118 minutes -- was absolutely gripped by these dialogues, I imagine others will find this quiet drama a potboiler. Jane Campion said that she herself "could have stayed another two hours." And Ceylan, accepting his prize, told us at the press conference: "It was originally 4 and ½ hours, but I edited it."
The story: A stone smashes Aydin's car window, as he and his manager are driving along the cliffs of Cappadocia. This shattering of the glass begins the shattering of his world. An impoverished boy threw it, angry, we learn, because the landowner is evicting his family, since the boy's father cannot pay the rent to Aydin the landlord. In fact, Aydin has already taken the family's refrigerator and TV.
Aydin, our protagonist, is not an evil man. He is simply comfortable in his role as an established landowner and retired actor, and now spends his time writing intellectual columns for a local newspaper. This comfort is challenged, however, by the conversations that ensue after the window is smashed--with the poor family, with his wife, with his sister--on topics ranging from civic responsibility to evil.
"My starting point is darkness," Ceylan told us in the press conference. "To search and understand the dark side of my soul." His film takes us deep into these murky areas. Each dialogue is brilliant and charged, not a word wasted, rising to a theatrical peak to expose the darkness that lies in this comfortable bourgeois home. For example, in one scene, the brother and sister sit quietly in the den. What starts as a critique of the man's writings (the sister accuses him of incoherence) shifts into a barbed exchange of insults (the sister is attacked in turn for "her lack of passion"), a crossfire that reveals the underlying sibling tension and the disrespect each has for the other, apparently for decades. "I wish my threshold for self-delusion was as low as yours," say the sister to her brother. "You haven't even gone to visit our parents' graves!"
Then the dialogue shifts once more...
While such probing dialogue is familiar Chekhov, the genius of "Winter Sleep" lies in Ceylan's direction: his use of set, sound and camera. The sister-brother episode, for example, takes place while the two are peacefully reposing in a warm study, in golden hues, the sister lounged on a couch, the man at his desk. We do not need screams or gunshots. This is how sibling tension is expressed in "real life": in a homey room, while rain falls and each word becomes an invisible bullet. No extra cues are necessary "to get it." In fact, in the 210 minutes of the film there are less than 5 minutes of music (a repeated strain of Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 20). Climatic moments are scored, rather, by the sound of a door opening, a fire burning, rain falling, a car driving up the road.
A question may be: what is this film ultimately about? The film broaches disparate issues, from political engagement to marital disenchantment to regret. But one theme predominates: the divide between the comfortable intellectual rich (with good intentions) and the suffering poor. Throughout the film are images of animals -- corralled horses, shot rabbits, dead dogs, free birds -- alluding to this unfair and oppressive power relationship. A Shakespeare quote from Richard III brings home this point: "Conscience is but a word that cowards use. Devised to keep the strong in awe. Our strong arms be our conscience. Swords our law." Only those in power can indulge in -- and deploy -- the feeling of "conscience." Ayadin, in truth, may be a hypocrite, just as his sister suggests.
But this is not a static message film; nor are any of these characters black-and-white. There is movement and growth and self-realization. After her husband lambasts her for being a sheltered, spoiled, rich woman, Nihal, the beautiful wife, takes a step to be active and take responsibility for the poor (with her husband's money, of course) -- and soon learns how right her husband was to critique her as a fool. And Aydin, after his cantankerous conversation with his sister, does go off to visit his parents' grave. As in real life, throughout the film, these characters are listening to each other and challenging themselves, trying to become "better."
Sometimes it even takes vomiting all over oneself to learn what a louse one is.
The ending: ambiguous -- as ambiguous as any ending point in "real life." Ayadin is at the typewriter, smiling. Has there been a real transformation in our lead landowning intellectual, or is he just back to where he started, always just on the "title page" and unable to act or engage? He murmurs thoughts in his head to his wife, beautiful words of contrition and love, words that she may never hear.
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