Sunday, March 29, 2015

175. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” (Kis Uykusu) (2014): Top-notch contemporary cinema that will satiate a patient, intelligent viewer

Winter Sleep is one of the outstanding cinematic works of 2014.

Winter Sleep is a daunting 196 minutes long movie and could put off an uninitiated, immature viewer craving for action, sex and thrills. The Turkish director Ceylan, speaking to a packed audience that had earlier stood in long, winding queues on a humid December morning in Trivandrum city in India to view the award winning cinematic work and glimpse the accomplished director, during the International Film Festival of Kerala, India, stated with a note of apprehension “I hope all of you slept well last night as my film is more than 3 hours long.”

Interior lighting that embellishes the film

Winter Sleep, as in the case of the director’s previous two films—Three Monkeys and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—proved one fact, it was a work of a contemporary master of cinema, while requiring a viewer’s undivided concentration to savour all the multifaceted morsels of delectable cinematic treats the film offers in the form of amazing performances, cinematography, choice of classic western music, and last but not least impressive script and direction. Winter Sleep deserved the two awards it won at the Cannes film festival—the Golden Palm for the best film of the festival and FIPRESCI prize for the content.

Winter Sleep is a film about several subjects of conflict and their resolution moulded into one tale, constructed with immaculate care.

The Script and the Scriptwriters

The husband-wife team of Ebru and Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been responsible for the last three masterpieces of director Ceylan. In all the three films, they have developed and presented varied types of husband and wife relationships. (Their collaboration is quite like another notable contemporary screenplay collaboration team made up of the Russian film director Andrei Zvyagintsev and scriptwriter Oleg Negin on their respective last three Russian masterpieces that culminated in Leviathan, a film that competed with Winter Sleep at Cannes and had to settle for the Best Screenplay Award, losing out on the top award to the Turkish contender).
The fascinating bit about Winter Sleep is that a real life husband-wife duo have come together to write about the fictional see-sawing relationship of a husband and a wife, who in this film are not cheating on one another and on many counts can be well considered as admirable individuals and perhaps from certain perspectives even as a devoted couple.

Husband Aydin (Bilginer) and wife Nihal (Sozen)
in delicate hues of light and shade

The husband in Winter Sleep is a retired actor named Aydin of certain national repute. He has co-inherited, with his sister, a boutique hotel in a fascinating natural rocky setting of Cappadocia in Turkey attracting international tourists.  Aydin’s wife is Nihal, an attractive young lady, who is evidently not as financially secure as her husband, whom she had admired in the past as an actor of repute and has been married to for a while.  Nihal now finds Aydin to be “an unbearable man.” They have no offspring.  Apart from helping run the small hotel, Nihal takes a proactive interest in the improvement of a local school and its affairs. Her husband has apparently never shown interest or an inclination to help improve the functioning of that school, which has caught the attention of his wife. He is busy writing a column for a small newspaper with limited readership, cocooned in his study filled with books and memorabilia of plays and films that he was associated with or liked and dreams of writing a book on the history of Turkish theatre.  He has even named his hotel “Hotel Othello.” The script of the film shifts gears with the arrival of an electronic mail from a female reader of Aydin’s column. She respectfully requests Aydin’s help in improving the deplorable conditions of a school in a not-so-distant village by either providing direct monetary help or by Aydin, as a respected citizen, contacting influential government officials to provide more financial resources for the school.  Aydin, who has never been interested in supporting Nihal’s pet school, suddenly wonders if he should respond positively to this distant admirer of his column.  What follows in the film, provide sufficient details to show the cracks in the marriage of two otherwise admirable educated Muslims, Aydin and Nihal, both having diverse social acceptance by different sets of people. Unlike George and Martha of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the husband and wife spewed venom at each other, in Winter Sleep, Aydin and Nihal are overtly caring and respectful to each other, taking great care not to tread on each other’s toes.  Even the most hurtful comments made by Aydin’s sister Nacla towards her brother are gently-spoken, well-chosen words though sharp as knives. One unforgettable line from Nacla to her brother is “I wish my level of self deception was as low as yours.”   So, too, are those of Nihal addressed to her recently divorced sister-in-law---subtle words and inflections of speech that drive home the intended critical message, without seeming to be ugly, even to the ears of the hotel‘s main employee who was in earshot. And like the Albee play (made into a memorable Hollywood film by Mike NIchols) there is reconciliation at the end, but in a quite unusual manner  for the average Muslim male ego one often associates with the contemporary Middle East.

Mature performances are the mainstay of the film

This critic, who was able to throw a couple of questions at the director, during a post-screening public interaction, specifically asked Ceylan about his three film long collaboration with his wife Ebru in scriptwriting--all of which resulted in three consecutive major award-winning films at Cannes. The response was revealing and startling. Ceylan stressed the fact that Ebru an accomplished Turkish actress (she also acted in Ceylan’s early films Distant and Climates) and filmmaker had taken to scriptwriting very well. Ceylan explained that he himself was influenced by literature, specifically Russian literature and that Winter Sleep is very similar to Anton Chekhov’s short story The Wife. Ceylan, who was influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence when he was a young man, evidently continues to develop and construct scenes reminiscent of the Swedish maestro. While developing the script, Ebru kept reminding her husband Nuri Bilge that the script was way too long and the length needed to be reduced.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan finally decided not to reduce the length as all the small details were important for him. As a jury member at Cannes, Ceylan recalled he wished Michael Haneke’s lengthy Austrian film White Ribbon could go on and on as it was great cinema just as he wishes certain badly made 80 minute long films would end quicker than their intended full duration. With remorse, he added to this critic, Ebru, his wife, might not work on a film script with him again after this decision to retain the film’s length and its myriad details. He added that he found women were stronger than men intellectually.

This critic decided to read the Chekhov story and compare it with Winter Sleep.  In the Russian story there are similar characters and a parallel ending, when you compare it with the film. In the Russian story, the lead character wished to write a book on the history of railways, while in the movie the lead character Aydin wishes to write a book on the history of Turkish theatre, which both pursue in the separate creative works. But more importantly, both works look closely at the social divide, in Russia (in the short story) and in Turkey (in the film). The social divide leverages the emergence of the fissure in the husband-wife relationship in both the movie and short story and therefore serves as an important sub-plot in both tales.

Social Commentary of Chekhov and of the Ceylans

In Winter Sleep, as in the Russian short story, the social divide is all pervasive. The landed gentry live in comfort concerned only whether their tenants pay their rents on time and do not hesitate to take corrective action if they are not paid, blind to the financial conditions of their tenants. The Ceylans, in their script, weave in the reactions of children and old women in the family of the tenants (an aspect Chekhov never dealt with) deprived of their TV by the owners because the rents have not been paid. For Chekhov, the peasants were hit by famine; for the Ceylans, it is a population who sought refuge after calamities decades ago. The Ceylans’ script even details the reaction of the landed gentry to the smelly socks of a tenant, oblivious of the fact that the poor tenant has walked miles to make a token payment.  Even the employees of hotel treat the less financially supported  tenant with disdain by bringing small female slippers for a male adult tenant, who has left his muddy shoes outside, when Aydin asks the employee to bring slippers to protect the visitor’s feet from the cold floor.  The boiling anger of the socially deprived folks towards the well-heeled landowners reminds one of Dostoevsky’s literary works, just as a swooning young boy in Winter Sleep reminds one of passages describing an epileptic in The Idiot. In Winter Sleep, the husband Aydin passing value judgements on the lack of cleanliness of the poor is contrasted with his wife Nihal who is a naive do-gooder who senses the pain of poorer sections of society. Both have differing attitudes and perspectives of the poor. Nihal does painfully realize that “hell is paved with good intentions.”

Aydin writes his column while sister Necla (background) provides bitter criticism

Shakespeare in Winter Sleep

There is no Shakespeare in Chekhov’s story but Ceylan’s love for Shakespeare goes beyond the name of the hotel in Winter Sleep.  There are two references to Richard III in the movie. The title itself connects with the famous line of the play “Now is the winter of discontent...” and towards the end one of the minor characters verbally attack Aydin with the quotation from the same play “Conscience is but a word that cowards use devised at first to keep the strong in awe; our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.”

Winter Sleep may not be an obvious treatise on conscience of the rich and powerful but on some reflection the film is indeed on this subject.  It is not without reason that the Ceylans have called the film by that name and introduced Richard III’s lines into the script.

The ambiguous, reflective visage of Nihal (Melisa Sozen), the wife,
 at the end of the film

Religion in Winter Sleep

Turkey is a Muslim country and it is inconceivable to make a realistic feature film without touching on religion.  In answer to another pointed question from this critic on the references to religion in the film, Ceylan noted that intellectuals worldwide are not worried about religion. In the film Winter Sleep,   the rent defaulting tenant is an Imam, a religious figure, who curses the inconsiderate rich landlord under his breath, while literally going the extra mile to grovel and appease his landlord. The Ceylans’ script makes Aydin realize that his roles on stage as an imam were all wrong after his brief interactions with his tenant imam. The former actor Aydin is taunted by his acerbic sister Necla as she describes him as a Muslim who never goes to a mosque to pray and yet writes about the importance of cleanliness by the devout.  Another taunt by Necla that deeply hurts Aydin is “Philanthropy isn't tossing a bone to a hungry dog. It’s sharing when you are equally hungry.”  And by stark contrast, the Chekhov short story has no mention of religion.

Ceylan, the Director, and Animals as Allegories

The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan has increasingly used animals—the role of dogs in Once Upon a Time in Anotolia is easily recalled.  In Winter Sleep, horses, a dead dog and a hare get attention. And interestingly, this is purely the Ceylans’ contribution, not Chekhov’s.  Aydin, the retired-actor-cum-hotel-owner, never owned a horse. Since a hotel guest points out to him that the hotel’s website shows horses, Aydin is persuaded to purchase a wild horse, which is subdued and kept in the hotel’s makeshift stable. It does not require the brains of a rocket scientist to see the parallels between the horse and Nihal as what happens to the horse is related to the husband-wife relationship. So do the allegories of the dead dog’s carcass and the waiting carrion birds on the tree branches connect up with the film’s plot.  And the final quixotic proof of ability to hunt game by killing a hare and showing the trophy to his wife Nihal provides considerable visual treats for the viewer to mull over the ambiguous ending.

Profile of Aydin in reverse before he spots the dead dog

Ceylan’s Actors

Winter Sleep is a tale of a retired actor Aydin and his wife. It was imperative that Aydin’s character be played by an able performer. Ceylan achieves this by casting Haluk Bilginer, a Turkish actor with considerable experience on the British stage and TV, who is a delight to watch as he interprets Aydin on screen. So are Melisa Sozen as Nihal and Nejat Isler (who was equally impressive in Semih Kaplanoglu’s Egg) as Ismail, the elder brother of the Imam.  While these three performers are top-notch, the other minor characters such as the Imam Hamdi, his nephew Ilyas, and Aydin’s sister Necla will not fail to impress a perceptive viewer. Winter Sleep is not a film held together by one actor, it is held together by an ensemble of quality actors well chosen by the director.

Cinematography in Winter Sleep

No discussion on this remarkable film would be complete without praising the cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, who has been a regular collaborator of Ceylan and has been responsible for capturing effective external and indoor scenes with dramatic effect, more so in the latter. His use of light and shadows in interior shots will remain in a viewer’s memory, film after film.  In Winter Sleep, his reverse angle shots of Aydin and slow zoom in on Aydin’s head at key junctures in the film are remarkable.  The rock thrown at Aydin’s Landrover can be seen in flight before the ultimate impact and one doubts if special effects were employed.

Reverse shot of  Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) in light and shadows

Lastly, the final shots of both Winter Sleep and Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (cinematographer Mikhail Krichman) are almost identical wordless shots of rocky snowy landscapes. Both films are outstanding and comparable. Winter Sleep won the top award at Cannes but failed to reach even the final nomination stage at the Oscars.  Leviathan won the Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination, and the Cameraimage Golden Frog award, the most prestigious award for cinematographers.

Music in Winter Sleep

The choice of music in a film by the director is often missed out by viewers. In Winter Sleep, music is sparsely used, but when it is utilized it embellishes the cinematic work. The piece of music Ceylan uses is Schubert’s Sonata no. 20 in A major the very same piece of music used by Robert Bresson in his French classic Au Hazard Balthazar. By a coincidence, the French classic is one of Ceylan’s favourite films.

Concluding Remarks

Though this critic is a great votary of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and considers him to be one of the finest directors alive and making films, the best work of Ceylan remains Three Monkeys, the first movie the director collaborated with his wife on the script. Both Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu, two remarkable Turkish directors, have injected a new life into Turkish cinema to take it new highs in world cinema.

P.S.  Winter Sleep is one of the top 10 films of the author in 2014. Three Monkeys (2008) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) have being reviewed on this blog earlier. Three Monkeys is the lone Ceylan work on his top 100 films list. A report of a brief interaction between the author and Nuri Bilge Ceylan in December 2014 at Trivandrum’s International Film Festival of Kerala published on the Dear Cinema website can be accessed at Zvyagintsev's Leviathan (2014) and Nichol's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), mentioned in the above analysis, have been also earlier reviewed in detail on this blog. Mr Ceylan is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers