Is there a more brazen act of pure artistic achievement this year than “Winter Sleep” winning the Palme d’Or? After all, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) didn’t end up with a 196-minute character study by thinking about box office figures and public approval. No, Ceylan was going to make “Winter Sleep” whether anyone liked it or not. But while an audience is always to be found at the intersection of artistic integrity and technical brilliance, it’s a special relief to see “Winter Sleep” take the top prize at Cannes, guaranteeing its success in the cinephile community and jump-starting its campaign representing Turkey at the Academy Awards in February of 2015.
There are traditional plot points at work – an unsettled debt; a broken window – but “Winter Sleep” is, above all, a dissection of conversation. The players are Mr. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) – the gentle owner of a rural Anatolian hotel, his young wife (Melisa Sözen), his irritable sister (Demet Akbag), and a tenant that’s struggling to pay his rent (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç). The topics are seemingly everyday, but with snowfall comes fiery disagreements. Ceylan exposes the inevitability of our internal jealousies and regrets becoming external trappings.
Watching the subtle shifts in character in these sprawling, 15-20 minute long dialogue pieces is to witness a virtuoso conduct a symphony on the best night of a tour. Complex human emotion penetrates every interaction in the film. Without the use of narration, we come to understand each character’s private motivations. Mr. Aydin begins as the most sympathetic character and is broken down from there to reveal his gentleness a fault. Bilginer plays the character with naturalism beyond belief. In an interview just after the film won the Palme, the actor remarked that receiving the script “was frightening, because it was 183 pages long. It was like a New York telephone book.” The subsequent rehearsals, which were filmed at all times, resulted in 200 hours of footage – a figure that offers some insight into the work that was required to master this sort of intense volume of material.
But the length of the final film is simply a non-issue. There are about as many scenes as any shorter film, they’re simply longer. The performances are engrossing, the writing (done by Ceyland and his wife Ebru) dense, and the photography stunning. Gökhan Tiryaki’s landscape photography is as essential to a Ceylan film as any other component. Tiryaki, this time, elects to follow the naturalism of the story by locking the camera down and allowing the actors to work in full frame, long-running takes. To get around cutting between two different shots, he’ll occasionally insert a mirror into the frame to achieve two shots in a single composition.
Citing superior color accuracy, he also elected to use the Sony F65 –a rare choice next to digital giants like the Arri Alexa or RED Epic. He’s right though – the mournful landscapes of Anatolia look fantastic and the color grade appears to add contrast but leave much of the original color tones that are so important in photographing a film that hopes to achieve both cinematic and natural tones. The sandy beige of the hotel’s cave-like exterior looks beautiful soaked in the pale, winter blue light.
Cult cinema may do best when offering shocking and stylish sequences to share with friends, but art house work like Ceylan’s lives on when opening a conversation with its audience. On form, the director remarks, “[it] has the ability to make the content more mysterious, more powerful, more real, more light, to imbue it with more truth. It’s everything really.” “Winter Sleep” and its masterful dissection of subtext and the internal forces at play between two people with a storied relationship will be a present figure in the history of international cinema alongside Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.” The audience at the Chicago International Film Festival applauded the film despite the filmmakers not actually being present to receive the applause – it was a collective celebration of cinema that’s both derived from a single artist’s heart and mind, and breathtakingly involving.
9.5 out of 10 pointsReturn to CIFF 2014 Coverage
3 hr. 16 min.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbag, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Mustafa Kiliç, Nejat Isler, Tamer Levent, Nadir Saribacak, Rabia Özel, Fatma Deniz Yildiz, Ekrem Ilhan, Emirhan Dorukutan