A genuine experience that will leave you completely nourished. A cat’s whisker away from being a masterpiece.
Leading up to its Cannes premiere, the buzz around Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new film has been positively energetic. And it all led to prediction lists putting it at the very top as most likely Palme D’Or winner come next weekend. Of course, Ceylan is no stranger to the festival; his 2008 Three Monkeys won him the Best Director Award, and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, his previous film before this one, won the Grand Jury Prize (highest alternative to the Palme) in 2011. Today, Ceylan’s love affair with the prestige of Cannes continued with Winter Sleep and, judging by the boisterous standing ovation the director and his cast received after his three hour and fifteen minute epic finished, the talk of a Palme D’Or will grow ever louder. With good reason too, because the film is a cat’s whisker away from being a masterpiece.
A wealthy man made a decision to lead a simpler life after 25 years of theater acting, and retreated into the confines of his hotel, located on the cliffy outskirts of Anatolia. This is where we meet Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who spends most of his time running his various properties and dealing with his tenants through his right-hand man Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), working up the motivation to write his book on the history of Turkish theater, and contributing think-pieces on various Turkish subjects to an unpopular newspaper. His young wife Nihal (Melissa Sozen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag) have their own quarters in the hotel, the former trying to do some charity work and the latter getting over her recent divorce. As winter begins to clasp the land in its snowy palm, these ordinary people get into some epic conversations amongst themselves, their tenants, and their friends. Nobody watches TV.
Rereading that paragraph, it feels somewhat nonsensical to describe the narrative for a film like this. Of course, every review should have a description of the plot so the paragraph serves its purpose here, but if you’ve seen any Ceylan movie you know very well that standard words do little justice to the kind of innate magnetic power his films are able to produce. Methods include conversations that last real time, carefully detailed artistic direction, and (in this case) a cinematography so pallid and desolate it will freeze your bones. There is still a point in naming all of the actors, in a hopeful effort that the names – though completely unknown to western tastes – will stick in the mind of readers. It’s Bilginer’s show, who plays his complicated and inexcusably human character with perfectly balanced grace and arrogance; you’re often left torn on whether to completely side with his views or hate his guts. Nevertheless, every other actor, especially the two women who play such major roles in Aydin’s life, makes a memorable impact. This review carefully tiptoes around a crucial subplot concerning one of Aydin’s tenants because it needs to be experienced with utter lack of previous knowledge, but the actors involved there are equally excellent.
Experience. That word gets thrown around so much nowadays in reviews that it all but lost its meaning. Gravity is not a movie, it’s an EXPERIENCE. Enemy is more like an experience than actual movie. And so on. The true meaning of experience considers that personal factor, makes you feel involved, and soaks you into the world of the film. The two examples given are recent obvious ones, but neither was a real experience for me because something or other didn’t allow me to let go completely, and trust the filmmaker completely. With its slow-burning pace, crucially subtle camera movement, and – the natural highlight – utterly captivating exchanges between every person, revealing the fragile cracks of a pathetically self-obsessed nature, Winter Sleep is a genuine experience. Even referring to the people in this film as ‘characters’ feels like an offense.
What Bela Tarr did with images, Nuri Bilge Ceylan accomplishes with dialogue; one hundred percent inclusive assimilation. You literally get lost inside this world that seems to balance on the periphery of humanity itself. But, believe it or not, that’s just the surface. If you put your trust in Ceylan and his troupe of brilliant actors, every action will reveal deeper meanings, every frame will contain significant details, and you will leave the theater completely nourished. A 10 would be a bit much for a score after a first viewing, and there is a voice over toward the end that almost pulls you away and makes you realize you’re in a movie theater, but I’ll be stunned if another Cannes film impresses me as much as this one has. Not to add more fuel to a prematurely lit fire, but at the very least I can hope that Jane Campion and her jury get as wonderfully lost inside this movie as I have.
Originally published on May 16, 2014 during the Cannes Film Festival