‘Winter Sleep’ Is a Cinematic Essay on Emotional Collapse

Filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan captures the haunted air of a quiet Turkish village in his Palme d'Or winning film.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a Turkish filmmaker celebrated for his highly atmospheric and deceptively placid films, specializes in the kind of meditative slow-burners that secured Ingmar Bergman’s rank as one of cinema’s deepest thinkers. Often frustrating and challenging viewing, Ceylan’s films have provided the world a revealing window into Turkish life; every movement in story and character is a recorded act of culture. Not one who is compelled to simply entertain an audience, Ceylan makes the serious choice of forcing viewers into a lone confessional space where, for much time on end, they are confronted with a humiliating display of unleashed inner demons. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a good or bad thing.

If you’ve ever rubbernecked at a heated and private argument, you might just have more than a passing interest in what Ceylan has to offer. Winter Sleep (a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes) is a Dionysian showcase for the exposed nerves of inhibited emotion. We see the cruel exchanges of bickering families, warring neighbours, and discontent married couples who, under the dawning winter in the Turkish countryside, struggle (unhappily) to coexist with one another peacefully.

At the center of the story is Aydın, a failed actor who has inherited a family hotel located on a mountaintop in Anatolia following his father’s death. With him live his divorced and pessimistic sister Necla and his very young wife, Nihal. Aydın, a bored middle-aged man, lives off his inherited money but spends much of his time writing columns for his local newspaper. His perpetually dissatisfied and critical sister assures him that no one reads his work and that his writing is pompous, sentimental sap. Aydın’s wife is an uncertified and unpaid educational worker; she doles out money to fundraisers in the pursuit of earning a respected title amongst the regional board of education. Aydın can’t help but stick his nose where is doesn’t belong, feeling somewhat entitled since the people in his life live off his money and under his roof. Aydın doesn’t mind that his wife borrows his money or that his sister loafs around. But his goodwill comes at a price; they must endure his overbearing sense of piety in exchange for comfort and security. Both his companions live under the shade of nervous acquiescence, but quietly there rages the fires of indignation, waiting to burn Aydın at first chance.

If you’ve never cared to walk in on a salty dispute between two parties, no matter how juicy and salacious, you’ll have to pass on Ceylan’s essay on the disillusionment of cultural mores. There are generously lengthy scenes of people locked into dialogues of poisonous temperament; many exceed the ten-minute mark, and what you get is an entire picture of people who virtually do nothing but talk. It’s sure to leave many unmoved and frustrated. But Ceylan examines alienated life with the considered eye of a filmmaker who has arranged these conversations like the dialogues in an Edward Albee play.

It’s no surprise, then, that his film was inspired and loosely based on a story by Chekhov, a writer of sensitive understatement. Aydın’s psychological circling of his discontent, his inability to grasp the very strand of awareness in a situation of emotional collapse, is drawn with careful detail. Ceylan captures the moody and troubled proceedings with the great help of Gökhan Tiryaki’s crisp and tonally subtle cinematography, which evokes the haunted, mountainous air of a quiet Turkish village.

Adopt Films’ Blu-ray release is a bare-bones disc with no extras or liner notes. The picture presented is beautifully rendered with crisp, clear images, and solid colours. Sound comes through cleanly and the film is in Turkish with English subtitles.

Winter Sleep shares much of its enigmatic and somnolent atmosphere with other celebrated Turkish efforts like Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Yusuf Trilogy (which includes the films Yumurta, Süt and Bal) and many of the works by Reha Erdem. Such films place an undying focus on the human condition, choosing to frame actors within a scope of minimal activity. Ceylan’s film of people caught in the winter of their despair will surely unnerve those who can’t imagine anything more grating than listening to people talk for three hours. But those who discover a most violent impetus in the exchange of bitter words will enjoy this human drama of contrition.

RATING 7 / 10