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Nuri Bilge Ceylan Awakens Chekhov from a 'Winter Sleep'

At 196 minutes, Winter Sleep is no easy watch, but in its Chekhovian echoes it becomes a confident mood piece.

Winter Sleep

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Haluk Bilginer
Distributor: Adopt Films
Year: 2014
US DVD release date: 2015-05-05

Perhaps a personal approach is best. I've followed all of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan's movies since a critics' preview of Clouds of May at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1999. My memory is that not many attended that screening, and many others left before the ending of that character study of a disaffected writer. I realized it was "slow" (always a relative judgment, but we know what it means), but somehow it clicked, or I did. I thought, "This is made by someone who loves Chekhov", and was gratified to learn later that what seemed so obvious also happens to be true.

In case we hadn't already figured out the debt to Chekhov, a poster on the wall of the main character's study in Winter Sleep is for The Seagull. At three and a quarter hours, this is Ceylan's most hefty -- yet always delicate -- salute to the master of petit bourgeois psychology, as he explores the impulses that prod comfortable people to make themselves miserable.

The wealthy ex-actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) runs a beautiful hotel that looks like a castle grown organically out of a breathtaking mountain range in Cappadocia. He's only got a couple of guests, but he prefers to live like a pillowed hermit, scribbling his weekly newspaper columns of pretentious rubbish and being taken care of by a maid, a manager (Ayberk Pekcan), and a restless, much younger wife (Melisa Sözen). His equally discontented sister (Demet Akbag), separated from her alcoholic husband, stays with them, although she will vanish halfway through the picture without a by-your-leave, out-rhetoricized by her brother.

This spoiled menagerie is contrasted with the luckless and equally problematic tenants of a village home of which Aydin is landlord. There's a surly, drunken father (Nejat İşler) raising an equally sullen boy (Emirhan Doruktutan, of strange intensity for a child) while his ingratiating brother-in-law (Serhat Kiliç) bows and scrapes as the local Imam. Other characters pass through, often in the act of getting drunk or having arguments, or both. You could diagram which elements and characters recall which Chekhov plays (is a dead rabbit like the dead seagull, perhaps?), yet this film is based most directly on a story called "The Wife".

Many long scenes are devoted to tense, allusive, abstract disputes between the "high" characters, who never raise their voices but spill articulate and contradictory recriminations, labeling each other with faults that mirror their disappointments with themselves. What might be boring scenes in another movie are credible and fascinating, even bracing as they capture the falseness of certain types of argument, with its projections and hidden forces. They feel so true that we can't help wondering if, in the manner of Ingmar Bergman, Ceylan pulls them out of his own psychoanalysis sessions.

An early incident sets the viewer on edge for what turns out to be a meditative yet discomforting movie. There's at least one disorienting shock-cut involving the boy, and a later one involving the wife when she thinks her husband has gone, and a few moments as ethereal as dreams. All of this is shot by Gökhan Tiryaki in gorgeous widescreen compositions, from warm crystalline interiors to soft snowbound exteriors, before closing on the chillingly beautiful consolation of a Schubert piano sonata played by Alfred Brendel. Yes, that's what kind of "high art" movie this is, which may be refreshing in itself.

This movie runs 196 minutes. I fast-forward through lots of movies shorter than this but never felt the urge here. Of course I sometimes paused (a natural perk of watching at home on Blu-ray, and one I wouldn't be without), but was always drawn into this movie's precisely calibrated sense of place and pace, its recognizable characters and serene compositions. I'm not sure I'd have given this movie the Grand Prize at Cannes (as the jury did), but this deeply confident mood piece isn't a bad choice at all.

The Blu-ray image looks and sounds great. The disc has no extras.


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