In one of a hundred perfect little moments in Winter Sleep, a wealthy landowner, smiling, chuckling, consents to having his hand kissed by a young boy who threw a rock at the man’s Land Rover.
The boy is the angry son of an alcoholic tenant threatened with eviction. The man, Aydin, runs a small hotel in the rugged Cappadocia region of Turkey. From his late father, Aydin has inherited some nearby cliffside apartments, in addition to the hotel he has named the Hotel Othello, in honor of his own successful career as a stage actor in Istanbul.
The shot in question holds the man’s sister and the man’s wife in the same frame, as they look on, skeptically, while lordly Aydin holds out his hand. Aydin is trying not to relish the moment, but he’s failing. He smiles broadly, chuckles, extends his hand a little farther … and then the boy faints, either from pneumonia or from the sheer humiliation of the episode.
Winter Sleep arranges material and themes primarily from two Anton Chekhov stories, Excellent People and The Wife, into a shape all its own. The co-writer and director is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who has ventured into Chekhovian territory before. His co-writer is his wife, the writer, photographer and actress Ebru Ceylan, and their film deservedly won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
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I love it, not simply because I love Chekhov or because I’ve loved so much of Ceylan’s earlier work. I love it because the director, having come into his own as a master international filmmaker years ago, gives us so much to see and think about, so many astringent observations about life’s compromises and longings. Three hours and 16 minutes in length (wait! come back!), Winter Sleep feels like a novel, an exceptionally rich short story and a cinematic immersion all at once. It’s not the sort of picture you can recommend to anyone in a distracted hurry. But it is a beauty.
“I see no harm in some self-deception to protect yourself,” asserts the man’s wife at one point. Some time ago this woman, Nihal, played with unerring precision by Melisa Sözen, made her peace with the narcissist she married. But that peace is a fragile one.
Against some remarkable landscapes, Ceylan’s latest maintains a tight focus on a small handful of people. We first see Aydin, played with easy charisma and witty hauteur by Haluk Bilginer, as he picks mushrooms on the hills near the hotel. It is nearly winter. A few tourists hike in the distance. Aydin has a big project in mind for the winter months and beyond: writing the definitive history of Turkish theater. (In the Chekhov story The Wife, a neglectful spouse is determined to write a definitive history of Russian railways.)
Aydin spends many hours of his life, meantime, contributing a weekly column to the local village’s paper, pontificating on art, culture and spirituality. His divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag, who smiles like a Cheshire cat) regards Aydin with equal parts affection and disdain. By contrast, Nihal has dangerously little affection left for the man who patronizes her volunteer efforts to help the local schools. He calls her a “chronic philanthropist,” a “parasite.” He does this with a veneer of sympathy that is galling. Aydin is a world-class mansplainer, forever seeking the upper hand in a conversation, a power dynamic, a shell of a marriage.
Meantime another drama is playing out with the family living in one of Aydin’s apartments. The landlord and his handyman (Ayberk Pekcan) are on the verge of tossing out the family whose youngest member is the little boy with the rock. Charity and understanding would go a long way to improving their lot in life. Winter Sleep, which translates literally to “Hibernation” in Turkish, is about hearts like Aydin’s that have cooled to the point of freezing.
The script pulls in elements and discussions from other writers, including Dostoyevsky and Voltaire. The ensemble cast is quietly splendid; you can’t really imagine any other faces in this film. True to Chekhov, the film’s narrative line isn’t really the appeal. The appeal of Winter Sleep lies in its characters’ threshold of revelations — the moments when, for example, the sister, and then the wife, in separate confrontations with Aydin, scrape away his protective blather to reveal the insecurities underneath.
Like Ceylan’s earlier Climates, this is an evocation of a relationship that begins near the end, but the end, in this case, may never arrive. The movie is like life. People sometimes stick it out, unhappily. The rich usually stay comfortable; the poor struggle and often don’t survive.
Scored, a tad insistently, to the recurring theme of Schubert’s piano sonata No. 20, as was Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the story lands essentially where it starts: with people wondering how they got where they are. And if they can change.
The widescreen cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki creates a ravishing, melancholic warmth in the fireside interior scenes as well as chillier tones in the outdoor sequences. While I wouldn’t suggest seeing “Winter Sleep” on a small screen, or after 8 p.m. at night after a glass of wine, I submit that it’s probably the finest (and paradoxically, least faithful) Chekhov adaptation on film. And that it creates its own world, out there on the Anatolian steppes, indebted to a great writer but guided in a new direction by a key contemporary film artist. In the U.S., Ceylan’s last four films made less than $500,000 combined in theatrical release. But money and mainstream popularity rarely speak to our most interesting and lasting accomplishments in any medium.
In Turkish with English subtitles
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Melisa Sözen, Haluk Bilginer
Rated: Unrated (strong language, violence)
Running time: 196 min.