When Nuri Bilge Ceylan gave his acceptance speech for receiving the Palme d’Or for this film, he dedicated it to the “young people of Turkey, many of whom have lost their lives in the past year”, an oblique reference to the recent protests and mining disasters. The director of this 197 minute-long opus has also said in an interview that the central character of Aydın is “a typical Turkish intellectual”. These two facts together tell us much about how this film is commenting on Turkish society.
One could easily dismiss it as typical art house cinema. Its sheer length will no doubt put many off. It lacks ‘action’ in the sense that we have become accustomed to expecting from films. By the end, we might feel as though nothing has happened – but we should be mistaken to think so. For over three hours, and many, many scenes of just dialogue, we creep deeper into the trapped and stultified lives of Aydın, an ex-actor turned hotel owner in the harsh landscape of Cappadocia, his divorced sister Necla and wife Nihal. The conversations of these characters simply are the drama: wandering and meandering, they are undoubtedly long, and that is their strength: pleasantries and everyday affectations come one moment, then a series of implied insults, a smirk, a sigh, a forced smile, silence, and then back to pleasant chatter. By these circuitous scenes of dialogue we learn more about the self-importance of Aydın – his pontificating articles in the local newspaper, his disdain for his pauper of an Imam and tenant Hamdi, his tiresome sense of being a self-made man and lordly ruler of his small kingdom. Necla, his sister, brims with a passive aggression towards Nihal and Aydın that has clearing being steeping for many years; one senses that her keen words of criticism have been carefully rehearsed in her mind. Yet it is Nihal’s contempt for Aydın that is most striking. Her fair face shows us a woman withering away, fraught with spite, yet succeeding to distract herself with philanthropy – until Aydın learns of it, cuts it down with a few patronising remarks and takes it from her.
The powerful social critique expressed in the film reaches its peak when Nihal decides to donate a very large sum of money to her husband’s tenants. Does she do it to solely alleviate her conscience or in a genuine attempt to improve the family’s situation? Whatever the reason, her gesture is seen by Ismail, the imam’s brother, as utterly insulting and humiliating. Although she seems to seek to abolish the existing economical hierarchy that defines the relationship between the tenants and her husband and herself, she only reaffirms the pervasive social hierarchy that exists between the two families. Expecting gratitude, or acquiescence, she is confronted to Ismail’s pride and hostility. She then perhaps realises how degrading her initiative is, giving charity to the very same people disgraced by her husband. The hierarchy is equally maintained by the fact that Aydın insists on charging the tenants for the rent. If he is as wealthy as he gives to understand, why does he not simply allow them to live in the house for free? Or would that, again, be an act of unwanted charity?
The notions of morals and conscience are underlying in all the conversations between the characters, who use them to undermine each other’s actions and thoughts. Although Aydın believes he is a man of good conscience, his sister Necla makes a point out of showing him it is nothing but an illusion, a way for him to keep on living his deluded life. Nihal violently puts him in front of his contradictions: all those morals he constantly talks about, isn’t he the very person who lacks them the most? With their self-righteousness, the three of them seek to justify their own acts, words, and thoughts, in order to disguise their deep uneasiness towards each other and towards the members of the community around them.
The study of these faces showing and hiding back their emotions, as they are lit by flickering log fires in the cavernous rooms of the hotel, are fascinating enough to keep one’s attention throughout these conversations. And yet, in between these scenes, there are also some astonishing shots of the barren countryside as it slowly slips on a spotless blanket of snow. The wisps of fog clinging and passing through the fingers of grass in the first shot alone could not fail to catch one’s eye. The frozen beauty of snowy Cappadocia adds aesthetical substance to the powerful psychological drama taking place.
Toward the end, where the film swells to a dénouement, we are tempted to be enticed by the rakish smile of Aydın as he stares straight at us, his grey hear whirling in the wind, and as we hear his voice reading out his letter to his wife to ask for her forgiveness. Yet the following sight of Nihal, staring lifelessly onto the floor, without even the energy to cry any longer, reminds us of Necla’s words to him:
“Butün meselen ne senin, biliyor musun? Sen, acı çekmemek için, kendini kandırmayı tercih ediyorsun.”
“You know what your problem is? In order not to suffer, you prefer to fool yourself.”
The word ‘Aydın’ means ‘intellectual’ in Turkish. Together with the remarks mentioned at the beginning by Ceylan, we can see that this is all that is left of the bourgeoisie in Turkey: feeling increasingly alienated from the religious and impoverished masses, they distract themselves by being charitable to avoid waking from their deep slumber, to avoid seeing the republic of their long-misplaced ideals, a republic in decline.
You can see Winter Sleep at the Cornerhouse on Oxford Street until the 30th of November, in Turkish with English subtitles.
This is an article co-written with Mehmet Çiftçi.
The picture is from The Playlist.