Thursday, October 16, 2014

Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu)

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan 

WINTER SLEEP (Kis uykusu)       B                   
Turkey  (196 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Nuri Bilge Ceylan 

The film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the most prestigious award in all of cinema, and it doesn’t come without controversy.  In fact, because of the vehement discussions generated afterwards and the various problems people have with the film, it plays into its role as generating interest and enthusiastic film discussion, certainly one of the goals any filmmaker could have before releasing a film.  Most likely the worldwide audience will think the pros outweigh the cons, but this is an exhausting experience, and not altogether for good reasons.  Filmmakers can always rationalize excessive length in films, finding some artistic basis, but the truth is this doesn’t need to be well over three hours and the length is only part of the problem.  This is largely a writer’s film, as every word is about the author writing the words, which he transfers into a story taking place onscreen, where the majority of the film is spent in arguments and personal criticism, but there is little doubt that the subject is the author himself.  Because of the overall length of the film, this plays out as a summation of his entire film career, like an opus work, one that is meant to immortalize the author/creator.  In CLIMATES (2006), the director places himself in front of the camera and stars with is real life wife Ebu Ceylan, where the male character couldn’t be more self-absorbed and selfish, resorting to psychological harassment and sexual abuse, where he comes across as a domineering creep.  While it takes guts to expose oneself like that in front of the camera, this seems to have been the preliminary lead-in to this larger, more extended work, focusing on one man’s overcontrolling demeanor that chokes and suffocates the life out of his marriage, where initially he comes across as cultured, well-mannered and sympathetic, but over time we lose patience with him, as do all the other characters in the film, because the only person he really cares about is himself, where the world must revolve around him, and he always has to get his way, continually bullying those around him until he gets it, where he nags and picks at every little thing to undermine and discredit others while remaining totally immune to his own faults.  He is the perfect example of a seemingly innocent male misogynist whose chief overriding flaw is emotional and psychological abuse, who hides behind his occasional moments of kindness and genuine concern with philosophical posturing while remaining clueless and blind to the other times where he simply doesn’t give a damn about others, as he tramples over their fragile emotions with the subtlety of a steamroller.  

Because this film dwells so completely on the director himself, where the film is a choreography of disagreements and arguments, filled with lacerating criticisms targeted at the overly bossy husband that have likely been leveled at Ceylan, co-written by his wife who certainly offers authentic critiques of her own, it comes across as self-indulgent and egotistic, where the length only aggravates this obsessional need to dwell on himself.  Viewed in this manner, this is not a very good film, as the narrow focus is equally suffocating for the viewers in the audience, most of it expressed with the lecturing tone of superiority.  Thankfully, Ceylan’s greatest strength is shooting outdoor landscape shots in Turkey that are breathtakingly beautiful, taking us to historical sites of natural splendor in CLIMATES, virtually unknown rural geographical beauty in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), where this film, shot by Gökhan Tiryaki in Cappadocia and Nevşehir in Central Anatolia, may be the most astonishingly beautiful natural locations of all.  Unfortunately, only about 20% of the film is shot outdoors, while the rest takes place in the claustrophobic confinement of their home, where Mr. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), an extremely wealthy former actor now runs a small hotel in one of the more unusually impressive locations on earth, where the building itself feels like a cave dwelling built into the natural rock formations of the region.  Aydin lives with his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag).  Initially the story concerns the turbulent relationship with various men in the region where Mr. Aydin inherited wealth from his deceased father, including the role of landlord, inheriting tenants who are not in a position at the moment to make their rent payments, as the drunken older brother in the home, Ismail (Nejat Isler), was recently imprisoned for six months and no one afterwards will hire him.  Aydin’s hotel clerk and driver, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), nearly comes to blows with Ismail after his young son throws a rock breaking the truck window of Aydin’s vehicle, apparently mad that he’s possessed many of the household items like furniture and the television in exchange for rent.  Ismail’s brother Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç) is an imam that tries to teach his brother’s son to apologize, but this obviously causes great humiliation, especially when the dirt poor family has to walk miles across a muddy landscape to seek the pleasure of the master of the house (Aydin), who on some occasions arrogantly refuses to see them at all.   

“A king in his own little kingdom,” as he calls it, Mr. Aydin is an imperious man full of mockery and scorn for others with different moral values than his own.  Behind the scenes, he writes an Internet column that serves as a platform that allows him to become a moral voice for the region, often expressing religious views, though he never sets foot in a mosque, but that doesn’t stop him from preaching about the behavior of others, often criticizing their lack of ethical conduct.  While Aydin sits at his desk, his sister Necla often stretches out on the couch behind him, like a back seat driver, where she also has a way of expressing her own contempt for the hypocrisy of these columns, wondering who her brother thinks he is that he can become a moral spokesperson when he doesn’t know the first thing about religion or the affairs of impoverished people.  This, of course, leads to long, drawn out discussions that begin politely enough but slowly turn into more pointed attacks on each other’s character, eventually feeling like all-out personal assaults.  Initially the audience may sympathize with Aydin, as there’s been little evidence onscreen to support such sharp attacks, but by the end of the film we feel Necla never went far enough, as his shifty character, especially the way he manhandles and mistreats his wife, is far worse than imagined.  Nihal is seen as one of the few with a moral conscience, mostly unseen initially, where we hear from others that she spends her time working with various charities.  Her husband seems to support these activities, proud of her honorable intentions, but grows suspicious when they start to have clandestine meetings at his house without his knowledge.  When he awkwardly sits down to see for himself what’s going on, Nihal takes him aside and politely asks him to leave.  Aydin, however, is outraged that she’s intentionally concealing her work from him, suspecting something is going on under his roof.  Aydin won’t leave this issue alone, but begins a series of patronizing discussions about his wife’s naiveté, claiming she doesn’t know the first thing about running a business, that he wants to protect her from being discredited and taken advantage of by others, but what he’s really doing is stepping on the one thing that truly belongs to her, that provides her sole source of independence and freedom, yet he begins a series of arguments where he literally squashes what’s left of her pride.  Despite her tears and protestations and her obvious discomfort, Aydin continues his domineering practices where he literally must have his way at all costs, no matter the consequences, which the viewer can see is having devastating consequences, but Aydin refuses to relent, insisting he is right, where he is literally full of himself and his holier-than-thou self-righteousness.  Nihal grows tired of being bullied in this monstrous fashion, where her husband couldn’t be more condescending, displaying a kind of male arrogance that isn’t just hurtful, but is mean and suffocating, draining every last ounce of energy just to put up with it.  While the film is an extended character study of overbearing male behavior wrapped in the erudite politeness of social class, supposedly adapting ideas from Chekhov, it’s really an ugly exposé of human contempt and maliciousness, a punishing existential journey where “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  By the end, however, growing ever more tedious and monotonous, the audience may feel more imprisoned than enlightened.   


  1. Hello again. First, let me thank you for your incisive writings in general and in particular for recent postings on Swedish and Philippino films. I enjoyed them greatly. I wanted to tell you this before I reply to your analyzis on Winter Sleep - at length, I'm afraid.

    One always walks on dangerous ground when one assumes that a work of art is about the author him/herself, because this approach easily narrows the scope of the work down. If this were the case with Winter Sleep, it wouldn't have the universal appeal it clearly has. Ceylan may use himself as inspiration, but his creation is a commentary on a much broader scale than just his ego. Hence, Winter Sleep is not (just) about the film maker, it is about marriage, difficulty of communicating and, for me most importantly, patriarchal tradition (not just concerning men/women, but also the way "the lower class" prostrates in front of "the upper class", weak men humbled by the strong men). If you were right, Winter Sleep would end up being tedious in its self-indulgence; however, the whole film is an analogy on the way society is structured, divided into two camps: men and women. Ceylan goes to great lengths in trying to explain the reasons behind the fundamental twistedness of a society mainly governated by only one of two sexes.

    This means that Winter Sleep is not a character study, not principally. However, as a character study alone it is powerful because of an aspect you didn't touch: acting. Auteur theory dominated way of approaching movies often neglects actors and often hails them for wrong reasons. I won't go deeper into that, I will just say that even though the writing in Winter Sleep is remarkable, it is the actors who maintain the interest in what is being said for over three hours. You see, Winter Sleep is not about the writing and the written word: it is about verbal communication, it is about how people talk to each other. During its three plus hours Winter Sleep studies a variety of different "discourses", if you will. This, for me, is the reason why I remained fascinated by the movie until the credits. And I was so immersed (hope that's the right word) in the characters which offered constant surprises and were so brilliantly performed by the entire cast, but Haluk Bilginer especially, that everything happening on the screen became a reality, felt real. Ceylan managed to really transport me to the places where he put his camera. The movie ended up feeling about two hours long.

    After only one viewing I have some hesitations in calling Winter Sleep a masterpiece, but time may well reveal it to be one.

  2. Hello again, Anton.

    Many people around me feel the same way as you, including some that I was surprised to hear feel this way, as we have not shared a love for Ceylon films of late, as I still prefer his earliest films, Distant in particular.

    But as I tried to indicate, this film has generated plenty of discussion afterwards which is a positive sign, and most critics will enthusiastically praise this film. I'm not one of them, as I do find his style overly indulgent. You are probably correct in your thinking that it rises above this narrow focus, which minimizes the impact of the film, but what you see and what I see are two different things. That's the beauty of film, and art, and all that I ever ask is that whatever views one espouses that it be honest.

    My thoughts on the power and influence of Ceylon's films have deteriorated since Climates, where I have detected this same element of tediousness and strident moralizing wrapped in philosophical intellectualizing. While I can appreciate his visual artistry, it's his recurring message I find abhorrent, as despite the rhapsodic beauty of his landscapes, his characters couldn't be more empty and self-absorbed, which by itself is no problem. But in Anatolia, after spending 2 hours in his developing drama, when he has a character read verbatim a medical forensics report with a dead body lying on a table for over ten minutes, I simply tune out, as this is not human drama, but a kind of forced captivity, where we are held against our will. This is how I felt about Winter Sleep. It did not fly by, it was near unendurable. Many people in the theater were asleep. The first two hours were somewhat engaging, but that final third of the picture just dragged on forever, where it wasn't even necessary to show anything after the drive to the train station in the snow, waiting for the train, and then jump to that final sequence when he returns home. Did we really need to see the drawn out drunken scene at the farm, the quotes of Shakespeare, and the hunting sequence the next morning? None of that added anything except 45 minutes of more tedium. As far as I was concerned the marriage was over. Even after his return and the writing of that self-satisfying letter, where he looks at it as if - - that ought to do the trick - - the marriage is still over. Because if she returns to that bastard she'll be miserable and under his thumb forever. Why do we continually have to deal with that intractable guy in all his films? My conclusion is simply no escape, because like Sisyphus, Ceylon can't escape himself. So he makes his audiences as imprisoned as he feels. That's my view.

    Films about "verbal communication" or "how people talk to each other" sounds like the basis for drama, an existing sense of conflict. Ceylon's films evolve into a prison of self-inflicted inertia.

    If people find theatrical interest or profound humanity in his works, then praise him to the hilt and call his works masterpieces. Let those people deliver their message. I just don't happen to share that view.

  3. (I seem to be suffering from insomnia, so...)

    I'm glad to hear that you have heard similar disagreements before. I should think that Winter Sleep is the kind of film that divides audiences. Interestingly, I 1) feel that Uzak is the least interesting and most indulgent of the movies I've seen from Ceylan, and 2) thought that the second half of Anatolia was more absobing than the first.

    I must insist on precisiness here: it is not about "seeing" different things, but interpreting what we are told in different ways. Case in point: the ending of Winter Sleep. I witnessed a genuine ray of hope. And that's what makes all the difference, because it finalizes Aydin's story as a coming of age story (I'm not sure if I use the term correctly): you interpret Aydin as a man who doesn't change - I, on the contrary, see the film in all its vastness as Aydin's unwilling struggle to become a better man (let us not forget the horse Aydin decides to free). If one sees the film from this perspective, which I strongly feel is justified, it makes the drinking scene, for instance, of the last part understandable: Aydin continues to understand people surrounding him - and himself - ever better. Whether Aydin's wife is capable of forgiving him is a different matter. In any case, I never felt being held in captivity against my will. (Even taken literally: I often walk out from movies if I feel they are wasting my time.) Partly this was because of what was being said and shown; partly because of how it was delivered. Winter Sleep is one of those films where the writing, the pacing and the acting help each other to become more than the sum of their parts. This, really, is the most beautiful aspect of the piece. Example: the drinking scene, again, where the authenticity of the delivery makes it very, very approachable.

    I also want to repeat my claim that Winter Sleep is a peek into a microcosm of Turkey, as well as many other cultures, where the traditional patriarchal mindset is out of time. This would be the POV most interesting to me on a second viewing of this immensely rich movie. Also the connotations and allusions to King Lear and Othello.

    I understand your argument. If there is in Winter Sleep only what you see, then I have to agree with your conclusions; I have tried to state that you have missed several themes. The question is, are they really there and are they intentional? This I dare not answer now.

    PS. For whatever reason you repeatedly misprint the director's name, though it is correctly spelled in the tags: it is Ceylan. Ceylon is what Sri Lanka used to be called.

  4. Hello again Anton.

    Thank you, by the way, for the spelling error. Chalk that up to an inadvertent spell check.

    I just don't feel as motivated as you to heap praise on this film, and I'll have to defer to your knowledge on Turkey, as it's not an area of expertise.

    While I think you summed up some of the film's themes quite concisely in your first post, storywise, at least up until the train station, we probably saw the same film.

    But Ceylan is a director I'm not enthused about because of his stylistic ennui, his over-intellectualization, where what may excite you, really does the opposite to me, as I feel little to no emotional connection to any of the characters, and that would be in every single Ceylan film, but in his earlier efforts there were other things going on - - like watching porn instead of Tarkovsky!! Here they talk endlessly about the petty details of their lives that may fester over time and soon dominate what's shown onscreen, where the personal squabbles become a substitute for human drama, where the interaction becomes one-sidedly abusive, which can be wretchedly horrible to endure. And while I acknowledge he's dealing with an entire culture of patriarchal dominance, I don't find, as you have, the so-called hope at the end. In fact, as his wife indicates, he manipulated her into staying in their previous argument, and at least in my view, he probably does the same thing again here. As I found the flowery letter about volunteering to be her slave a bit ridiculous, especially after what we've observed in his character. She's probably half his age and has the better part of her life to look forward to, while the delusional blind spots that contribute to meanness and hurtfulness on his part is not something you just will away, as it sticks with you and becomes part of your character. At his age, change is hardly likely, not impossible, but unlikely.

    I think he's continuing to be the same manipulative force, and partially why I think that is the way the director continues to manipulate his audience as well by forcing them to endure long, drawn out scenes of nothing but endless words, words, and more words in an otherwise oppressively stagnant atmosphere. Perhaps he should be a playwright and stage his plays, or if the guy wants to write a book, let him find a readership. But this is cinema we're talking about.

    I'm happy you appreciate his work, as some of my friends are as equally impressed as you are. But I'm losing faith in this director.

  5. I thank you for this stirring conversation. I greatly enjoyed it, for it illuminated many points concerning the ways an artist might try to reach his/her audience and vice versa. As an afternote, I also have slight reservations about Ceylan and Winter Sleep. They are really minor ones, like the use of the Schubert piece which I feel forever belongs to Bresson; and the way Winter Sleep reminds me of Béla Tarr, whose works are, for me, vastly superior.

    Best regards, as always.