“Winter Sleep,” A Review
Winter Sleep, 2014
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Interiority, Pathos, Survival
There are many things to like about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s exquisite film, “Winter Sleep.” (Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Film Festival, 2014).
First of all, it is a very interior film. Ceylan manages to create a strong inner sensibility of pathos, an aching sense that life, in the end, is cruel, relentless, and merciless. Inside of that psychological cosmos, however, is the other half of Ceylan’s Sisyphean fatalism: people do manage to survive in spite of the quiet desperation of their lives.
There is little question that Aydin, the central character, is the personified form of Ceylan’s world of pathos. And he is also a survivor, not unlike Hidayet, his lower-class assistant, who does all the managerial tasks and is Aydin’s personal chauffeur. (Hidayet’s constant, but strong background presence in the film appears to be Ceylan’s way of reminding his audience that the poor and the service class, in their uncomplaining stoicism, will always be with us.)
The Class Divide
Aydin has inherited his father’s hotel and rental property, making him a very wealthy man. Much of his working life is spent on writing a column in a local newspaper and thinking about writing a book about Turkish theater (he actually doesn’t start writing the book until the last scene of the film).
Aydin lives a very privileged life and has a strong sense of patriarchal and patronizing superiority over his younger wife, Nihal, and a local Imam, Hamdi, who lives with his alcoholic brother’s family.
Aydin is appalled at the clutter in the front yard of Hamdi and his brother’s home, a home Aydin owns, among other properties. He sees it as a violation of the “high culture” of Islam. He even writes an article about the Imam’s violation of that high-minded culture.
On the other hand, he doesn’t want to get involved in any of the messy details of being a property owner. That is very evident when the nephew of the Imam throws a rock at the window of the pick-up truck Aydin and Hidayet are in. Aydin stands in the background, more as an onlooker, as Hidayet brings the young boy to his father’s house, which leads to a confrontation between Hidayet and boy’s alcoholic father.
The young boy is enraged at Aydin that his father had been beaten by the debt collectors (it is not clear that the boy also holds a grudge because the collectors took the refrigerator and television as payment for the rent).
A significant portion of the film is about the strong class conflict between the privileged and the poor. That is very evident when Ismael, the young boy’s father, slaps the boy in front of Aydin and Hamdi. “Is that alright, now?” he says to them, reminding them that they’ve already taken the refrigerator and television set
The class disparity is also reinforced as Hidayet, Aydin’s assistant, has to do all the messy tasks of manager, servant, and chauffeur and to be at the complete beck and call of Aydin’s whims.
In another scene, Levent, a local teacher, reminds Aydin that he didn’t take into his hotel any of the victims of the devastating Turkish earthquake. Aydin defends himself by saying he had foreign guests. And then he goes into a tirade about how much charity money he has anonymously doled out over the years.
Ismael’s revenge reaches a powerful climax, later on in the film, when he throws into the fireplace a large sum of money Nihal, Aydin’s wife, offers to Ismael’s family. As he thumbs through the money, he gives a list of the ills his son has had to endure for what he considers to be guilt-ridden compensation money from Nihal.
In a final insult, before he eventually throws the money into the fireplace, he rebukes Nihal for offering the money in order to “ease her conscience by doling out charity to those less fortunate” than her.
This scene, by the way, reveals the very naiveté of Nihal that Aydin had warned her about in their own previous confrontation.
Her good-will gift of money has another layer to it; it was the money Aydin donated as a peace offering to Nihal’s project to raise money for needy schools (In their stormy and deteriorating relationship, she has her own kind of revenge in using the money to avenge what she considers to be Aydin’s constant interferences and control of her life).
The Grittiness of Sibling and Marital Relationships
At a deeper level, I believe Ceylan is a master at portraying the grittiness of human relationships.
Aydin is the classic stereotype of the aging bourgeois country gentleman. He sits in front of his computer writing high-minded articles about Islamic culture. He walks around his property and surveys its expansiveness. He talks gregariously with his hotel visitors. He drinks wine with a friend and gets drunk. He hunts.
Two other significant characters, however, play the role of his higher conscience. Eventhough, his sister, Necla, has her own fatalistic view of the world (she is recently divorced, bitter, and bored), she has to remind Aydin of his own hypocrisy in criticizing the local Imam while avoiding any commitment to “set foot” in a mosque.
Necla is relentless in her cruel analysis of his writing as “soppy romanticism” and his failure to take any risks for anything— “Tinkering uselessly,” she says of him, “like an alchemist.” This man of great promise in his youth, she says, “this elephant” has become a “mouse.”
The most cruel and poignant relationship Aydin has is with his young wife, Nihal. It is particularly cruel in its total honesty about their profound differences in age, experience, and perceptions of the world.
The climactic event, jump-starting that cruelty, occurs when Necla confronts Aydin by asking him not to sit in on a group she’s organized to raise money for some of the local schools.
The scene eventually erupts in her bedroom when he demands to see all the paper work for her group’s project. He returns after having a change of heart and offers an anonymous donation to the project as he promises her to stay out of the project.
It is during this scene, Nihal accuses Aydin of using his virtues to “suffocate people, to crush and humiliate them.” In the end, she says of him, “your high principles make you hate the whole world.”
She is not through with him in this scene. “Didn’t you feel remorse in watching a young vibrant woman wasting away in emptiness, boredom and fear? Now I feel ashamed….I’ve become coarse, timid, and suspicious….Whatever you call it—self deception or feminine logic, leave me alone.”
Aydin agrees to leave for Istanbul, not before he quietly tells her that the same woman who idolized him as a god is now taking him to task for simply being a man. “I’m simply a man,” he says. “And what’s worse I like it that way.”
Aydin takes a brief detour from his initially planned escape to Istanbul. He goes to his friend, Sauvi, has a drunken all night confrontation with Levent, goes hunting the next day, and then returns home.
A Modern Love Story In All Its Compromises
It is in the final scene that Ceylan gives us a climactic ending to what I see as a love story, quite modern in all of its gritty self-revelations and compromises. As Aydin looks up at Nihal staring at him through her bedroom window, he has his own interior soliloquy in which he says to himself that he is a changed man:
Nihal, I didn’t go away. I couldn’t….I’m a different man….I miss you…Take me with you like a servant, like a slave and let us continue our lives in our own different ways. Forgive me.”
The camera carefully scans Nihal’s tortured, self-searching facial gestures. There is some suggestion in those expressions that she is thinking about the possibility of a compromise with her husband. There is no doubt, at least to this reviewer, that she’s thinking about it.
Class differences; modern, complex relationships; marital compromises, brutal honesty; the pathos of everyday life; survival—it’s all there, and to my mind it’s the stuff of what makes Nuri Bilge Ceylan such a brilliant, insightful, modern film director.
An Addendum: Confinement and Freedom
An Addendum: In seeing the film a second time around, I was struck how Ceylan captured the tension between the worlds of psychological confinement and expansiveness.
The film’s cinematography captures the very closed interior, almost claustrophobic world of spacial interiors (conversations in small, cavernous rooms; the tight, enclosed snow-filled steppes; all the lonely, brooding scenes of Aydin strolling, sitting, looking, pondering; the confrontations between Aydin and Nihal, Necla, and Levent—-all of which occur in claustrophobic settings).
At the same time, several of the characters have a need to free themselves from the bondage of their enclosed worlds—Nihal, Necla, Ismael, Hamdi, and the young bicyclist. It is more than symbolic, by the way, that Aydin frees the wild horse, a fitting gesture that could easily be associated with the final freeing up of his own willingness to compromise with Necla.