Winter Sleep Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan Cast Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen, Demet Akbag Turkey, 2014, 3h16m, 15.
Across the past two decades, the landscape of Turkish cinema has seen the emergence of leading names onto the international film scene. Sharing stylistic and aesthetic visual qualities, this crop of filmmakers have converged on themes of family, and isolation, as explored in the work of Zeki Demirkubuz in Fate (2001), an adaptation of Camus’ L’Étranger and particularly in Semih Kaplanoglu’s childhood trilogy, culminating in Bal (Honey) (2010). The role of nature and the landscape observed in Bal, as a framework within which human foibles unfold, resonates when viewed alongside Ceylan’s oeuvre.
Ceylan’s most recent film prior to Winter Sleep was the equally measured Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2010), which brought not only visual expanses and seemingly undramatic moments to the screen, but also the reward of the Grand jury Prize at Cannes in 2011. Roger Ebert observed of this film that Ceylan “…doesn’t slap us with the big dramatic moments, but allows us to live along with his characters as things occur to them.”  It is this undramatic yet simultaneously eventful quality which reflects the approaches of Ceylan’s self-confessed influences Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson.  Films by these directors, in which a naturalistic exploration of life as it unfolds, are described by Andrew Klevan in Disclosure of the Everyday: undramatic achievement in narrative film, as types of film which have the capacity to “uncover profundity by structuring narrative around a range of life experiences…based in the everyday, that is in the routine or repetitive, in the parently banal or mundane, the uneventful.”  He goes on to clarify that such a style does not preclude “visually emphatic” images, a balance of seemingly opposed stylistic choices which converge in Winter Sleep; seen in the dramatic looming ‘steppes’, and the tempestuous weather system, unfolding alongside family discussion, routine habits, and otherwise emotive events (a hand smashed into a window, left to bleed) conveyed with stark lack of ceremony.
The pervasive panoramic vistas of …Anatolia punctuate Winter Sleep further, providing an integral minimalistic sparseness which not only permeates the look of the film, but also ties the characters inexorably to the landscape. The capture of these towering formations in their wide establishing shots can be linked to Ceylan’s interest in photography, sparked by a gift of a book on the skill which he was given as a child.  Building his own dark room and printing photographs, he developed his interest in the art, the results of which can be seen in his photographic series “Turkey Cinemascope” (2004) . Here, the panoramic lens is turned to city streets and plains, revealing an ongoing fascination with this visual perspective.
The stillness captured in these photographs is transposed to the screen, wide shots used frequently, as a smaller detail placed centrally in the frame focuses the attention. Howling winds and the cry of a bird barely accompany the opening shots of the ancient and unmoving steppes in Winter Sleep, in amongst which the solitary figure of Aydin stands. His diminution against this overwhelming landscape establishes swiftly a collection of ideas which will be explored throughout the film, including isolation, disconnection, and the tension between that which changes and that which remains static and unmoving.
Symbolism is utilised with precision in Winter Sleep, as a smashed car window renders the passenger hidden and fragmented behind fractured cracks. Both Aydin and his wife Nihal are often caught looking out of windows, trapped inside, or filmed reflected in mirrors, both alluding to notions of perspective, barriers, and the question of transparency. Their peering through various looking glasses recurs throughout the film as it delves into the relationships between Ayid and his wife, and also his sister, Necla. Despite literal cracks and longing looks, there is energy and vitality as embodied in the wild horses on the local plains. The process of capture and ‘breaking-in’ required to tame the wild animal speaks more widely to the various battles for freedom and dominance which ensue across the film.
The contrasting stillness of the landscape as opposed to the active human lives within is conveyed in the predominantly static camera style, as it steadily frames the unfolding ructions. The disparity of scenes being given a chance to breathe while the characters may be suffocating further heightens the tension between what may have been dreamed or hoped for, and what is. One exchange between Ayid and his sister Necla, taking place as he writes his weekly column for the local newspaper, Necla resting on the sofa, explores the contention in their relationship in a scene lasting eighteen minutes. Not only does the frankness of the discussion capture the type of no-holds-barred honesty possible in familial relationships, it also demonstrates the impact embodied when there is seemingly no ‘action’ taking place.
Ceylan’s references to Chekhovian influences throughout the years potentially plays not only into the film as a whole, but also the theatricality Aydin embodies (himself once an aspiring thespian, not ‘actor’, as he corrects a guest on the appropriate term). The title of the film itself alludes to a frozen permanence, a Shakespearean “sleep of death” even. While mists turn to rain, and rain to snow, the relationships under scrutiny, likes branches stripped bare, become further exposed. As the characters face the complexities of each other and themselves, amidst the harsh winter, the explorations undertaken across Winter Sleep reveal a richness of character, if a cyclical inevitability in their circumstances.
Originally published on glasowfilm.org
Ebert, Roger (07/03/12) http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/once-upon-a-time-in-anatolia-2012
Bradshaw, Peter (13/11/14), http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/13/nuri-bilge-ceylan-winter-sleep
Klevan, Andrew (2000) Disclosure of the Everyday: undramatic achievement in narrative film, Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Flicks Books. p.12
Andrew, Geoff (06/02/2009) http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/feb/06/nuri-bilge-ceylan-interview-transcript
Ceylan, Nuri Bilge (2014) http://www.nuribilgeceylan.com/photography/turkeycinemascope1.php?sid=1