Saturday, December 27, 2014

New movie review: Winter Sleep

Aydin, played by Haluk Bilginer, stares down the road that lies ahead in Winter Sleep.

What is it that you want to do – write the book you always imagined; donate to charity; spend more time with family; pick up and leave? It could be anything, just something on your to-do list that keeps getting pushed toward the bottom of the page. It is no one’s fault and certainly not your own. Life interferes. Obligations arise. Maybe you will get to it soon, or perhaps you will not. It is possible it is not that simple. You contend there is something getting in the way, but the truth is nobody is stopping you.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is about stagnation. It is about the cycles that repeat and the lies we invent to keep ourselves content. None of the characters in this film has what he wants, but all are too angry over what they lack to do anything about it. They simmer. They boil. They let hate and cynicism control them. Like tire tracks carved in the snow in the lonely Turkish wilderness, they refuse to venture off their well-worn paths because they cannot know when or if they will return to the safety of the road.

Aydin, played by Haluk Bilginer, is a wealthy hotel owner who was an actor in his younger years. He hopes someday to write the definitive history of Turkish theater, but he focuses his energies on vaguely political newspaper columns. His works are published but in a rag of a newspaper, and he measures his success by how many angry calls to the editor his pieces generate. When not sitting in front of his computer, he wanders the grounds of his hotel and chats with guests about little of import. It is winter, and there are few clients, but one gets the feeling that come spring, he will have these same conversations with a new group of travelers.

Nihal (Melisa Sozen) is Aydin’s wife. She is half his age, and it is difficult to grasp what such a beautiful woman could ever have seen in him. Yes, he is wealthy, but she does not seem the type to be lured in by money. They rarely speak or even see each other and keep mostly to separate parts of the estate. She is bored with life and fills her time with a charity committee dedicated to funding education. It is the one thing about which she is passionate, and she wants desperately to keep it for herself and refuses Aydin’s interference at every juncture.

Both are shells of who they were and who they want to be, but they coast through life because the unknown is more terrifying than the emptiness. All too happy to point this out is Necla (Demet Akbag), Aydin’s sister who has moved to the estate to escape an abusive, alcoholic husband. She fancies herself an intellectual. Whenever we see her, she is either reading or goading her brother or sister-in-law into a philosophical argument, it seems, simply for the sake of arguing. The arguments would seem to be a break in the routine, but their debates repeat and circle back around, growing just as stale as everything else.

In May, the Cannes Film Festival jury awarded Winter Sleep with its top prize. It is the latest in a long line of Palme d’Or winners – including last year’s Blue Is the Warmest Color and Tree of Life and Amour before that – to focus on the rhythms of daily tasks and interactions as a means of exploring what is missing from the characters’ lives.

Running three hours and 16 minutes, the film is overly long, but if pressed, I could not think of one thing to cut. Ceylan’s film luxuriates in the kind of lengthy dialogue scenes we associate with someone like Quentin Tarantino. Coincidentally, Tarantino was on hand to present the Palme d’Or to Ceylan at the festival. However, these are not pithy conversations about fast food or films. Instead, Ceylan’s script, which was reportedly almost 240 pages long, plumbs the depths of his characters’ inner lives.

Some of these sequences go on for 10 or 15 minutes at a time – unheard of in modern Western or European cinema – but as the minutes tick by, each line spoken reveals new layers of passion and motivation, even as characters outwardly demonstrate neither of these traits. They are petty and spiteful, obsessed with getting the last word or with finding the most cutting remark possible, but because their behavior stems from deep-seated self-hatred, nothing they can say will fix the real problem.

If I have made the film seem like a depressing slog, that reputation would be somewhat justified, and it is true this will not play well for most audiences. You will likely find yourself fidgeting in your seat, perhaps checking the time and wondering how much longer it could possibly go on. You would not be wrong to feel this way. I did. However, in the final calculus, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

By the time the credits roll, Winter Sleep has transformed from a moody drama about the pain of missed opportunities into a beautiful examination of people gradually waking up to the possibilities of life. For some, this realization comes too late, and for others, it arrives just in time. Everyone is suffering through the harshness of an Anatolian winter – and Ceylan’s film never lets his characters escape either the darkness or the cold – but at the end, we are not left with futility. We are left with hope and the faith that the coming spring will light our way forward.

See it? Yes.

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