David Lowery is a filmmaker from Texas. His work as a director has been shown at Sundance, SXSW and the Cannes Film Festival, and includes Pioneer, St. Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. As an editor, he has cut such films as Bad Fever, Sun Don’t Shine and Upstream Color, for which he received an Independent Spirit Nomination. As of this writing he is working on a movie about a dragon.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is a very good film with a difficult road ahead of it. It is a film so openly possessed of the noble, magisterial possibilities of cinema that it almost feels like an open target. Consider its title, for example, which, though lovely, conjures up plenty of pejoratives all on its lonesome, even before one considers that it is attached to a film that is 196 minutes in length, one largely composed of very serious, very heady conversations, all set to a soundtrack of fierce Anatolian winds and the occasional Schubert piano sonata. It seems daunting. It is daunting. I’ve been looking forward to the film since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year, and even so, I dragged my feet when it came time to watch it. It feels a little bit like homework.
Indeed, the story, with its landowners and agrarian politics, might have been pulled straight from Russian literature (Ceylan cites Chekhov as a source for some of the narrative). Our hero is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former stage actor of some renown who now runs a hotel carved from rock in the chilly Turkish hills of Cappadocia. He is husband to a much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who fills her days with charity work, and brother to Necla (Demet Akbağ), who thinks him a buffoon. He has inherited a number of properties in the nearby village, and through his position as landlord presumes to commune with the working class. He plays the role of kindly liege, presiding benevolently over his fiefdom, and he seems happy with his lot in life, his place in the world. But then one day a child throws a rock at his car, shattering a window — a simple act of dissension, but one which foments in Aydin a new and frightening sense of discord, from which much diegesis and discourse will ensue.
One will not find any tawdriness here. This is a film that considers, heavily, what is sacred, while never completely acknowledging the profane. It is closer to Bresson than Bergman in this regard, although it shares the latter’s preference for getting to the heart of the matter through dialogue. Time and again the camera finds its place and settles down, as do the characters, into their sofas and easy chairs, where they debate good and evil, rich and poor. There are no stakes established at the outset of the film, no ticking clocks, no deus ex machina. The drama’s heft is cumulative; it needs its novelistic sprawl to achieve the subtle but estimable effect that Ceylan is after.
The conversations range from the petty to the highly philosophical. Almost miraculously, the film never feels stage-bound. Thanks to the glorious lensing of Gökhan Tiryaki, even the most confined and static interiors have the cinematic breadth of an epic. Likewise, Aydin’s undoing has Shakespearean potential (which is underscored by literal quotations from the Bard, as well as the fact that the resort is called Hotel Othello), and Ceylan’s script holds against an open flame the dynamics of wealth, poverty, charity and humility. It is also, almost surprisingly, a very affectionate picture. As the characters fell into their consecutive pairings and their conversations ebbed and flowed, I found my affinity for them growing. I loved listening to them, to their arguments, their insults. My heart broke for Aydin as his sister castigated him for his assumptions, even as I was relieved to see him put so thoroughly in his place. The performance by Haluk Bilginer as Aydin perfectly pinpoints the nebulous denial that is key to this fellow’s existence; it is both gratifying and tragic to see the wool pulled from his eyes. The film begins with him hunting for mushrooms for breakfast, and ends with him shooting a rabbit, and between those two means is stretched the arc of a man learning just what size shoes he fills.
It is worth noting: this is not one of those long films that you can get lost in. It is a picture that needs to be seen on the big screen, not because it demands that scale but because that scale commands the focus required to appreciate it. It is surprisingly modest, and is never as earthshaking or momentous as its great length might suggest. Indeed, it is not a masterpiece, at least in the grandiose sense of the word. There are no immediate hooks, besides the cultural cachet that accompanies the Palme d’Or and the esteem Ceylan enjoys amongst fans of world cinema. Even so, I suspect this is not the type of film that will capture the already limited arthouse zeitgeist, the way Ida or Force Majeure did earlier this year. Ceylan holds his audiences to the same rigorous standards as he does cinema itself, and offers no shortcuts, no easy ins or outs.
None of these issues is inherently problematic; I catalog them so as to make no bones about what the film is. If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “Boy, this movie sure sounds like homework,” just know that it’s never not going to sound like homework. This is not a bad thing. I spent several hours and an extravagant number of words fretting about just that, as well as the cultural context into which this film is being released, about whether there was a place for it in modern cinema and whether it would be better to not see this movie at all than to see it on iTunes, before realizing: it is all moot. The movie has been made, it is being released, I watched it, and I am thankful on all three counts. Homework isn’t always a bad thing, and it’s helpful to remember going in that it also doesn’t always feel like homework, once you’re in the thick of it.