Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes review of Winter Sleep

The latest gruelling film from a Turkish master stakes its claim to the Palme d’Or

Sat, May 17, 2014, 13:41




Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Starring Haluk Bilginer, Demet Akbag, Melisa Sözen, Ayberk Pekcan, Nejat İşler

196 min, in competition

In the opening minutes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s terrific (and terrifically long) chamber drama, the protagonist, a sometime actor turned hotelier, is seen peering out the window at stark Anatolian beauty. The camera pulls in until the back of his head takes up the entire frame. Ceylan is rarely so explicit in his imagery, but, in this case, the implications are clear: we are about to spend the next three hours or so in and about the mind of the watcher. Some effort will be required from the viewer. But the rewards are abundant.

Now in later middle age, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) runs a rustic hotel in a remote, stony part of Turkey. In a set up that, under very different direction, could generate a sitcom, he shares the living quarters with Nihal (Melisa Sözen), his younger wife, and his grumpy separated sister Necia (Demet Akbag). Everybody has an issue with the old devil. Necia finds him self-important and pretentious. Nihal feels suffocated and, largely to have something of her own, has begun dedicating herself to charitable works. At one point, she describes her husband as “cynical, spiteful and selfish” then backtracks just a little to argue that, though undeniably civilised, he uses his erudition to crush the will of others.

There is a feeling abroad at this year Cannes that the Turkish director’s time has come. Winner of three major prizes at earlier festivals, he has been expected to finally graduate to the Palme d’Or in 2014.

Does Winter Sleep have what the jury are looking for? Unlike other masters of slow cinema such as Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr, Ceylan does not trade in bravura images. There is a wonderful shot of a horse being dragged from a river. The local houses carved into the rock offer stunning backdrops to exterior sequences. But Winter Sleep is composed mostly of long conversations that skirt big ideas as Aydin and his associates attempt to disentangle the threads of his infuriating personality. In that sense, the picture has the shape and feel of a character study by Saul Bellow. So leisurely is Winter Sleep, it makes Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, his last film, feel like an episode of The A-Team.

It takes this long to make such an exhaustive study of such a complex fictional personality. By the close, we feel as if, rather than peering into Aydin’s brain, we have been coiled up and inserted into his cortex. So, yes, it could win.