Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Runtime: 196 minutes
Of the two films released this month that channel Bergman (the other being Miss Julie), Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep is easily the more cinematic of the two. Unfortunately, that label shouldn't be taken as a glowing endorsement. Ceylan's drama, set in Turkey's Anatolia region, features lovely scenery and effective performances, but gets too caught up in its own intellectual windbaggery. After a string of excellent Palme D'Or winners out of Cannes, 2014's victor comes as a bit of a middling let down.
When Ceylan and cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki capture the characters against Anatolia's wintery vistas, the film momentarily opens up. Yet, too often, Winter Sleep retreats into narrative hibernation. Ceylan cloisters his actors away in living rooms and parlors. It's not an inherently flawed approach. Films are allowed to be dialogue-driven exercises that forego obvious, "cinematic" techniques. Intimacy is key in films like Winter Sleep.
The problem is that Ceylan's intimacy quickly shifts from bracing to insufferable. Protagonist Aydin (Haluk Bilgener), a failed actor currently working as a magazine editor, spends most of Winter Sleep going off on tangents. He fights for dominance against his young wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his recently-divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag), doing his best to salvage his aged, withered ego. How Nihal or Necla put up with him is a mystery. After making it through Winter Sleep, clocking in at 196 minutes, I was more than ready to bid Aydin 'goodbye,' and never see him again.
Aydin's off-putting personality obviously isn't a mark against the film, but Ceylan's neutral-to-supportive writing and directing don't help. Ceylan is not a sentimental filmmaker, but the distance he keeps from his characters (emotionally, not visually) leaves the film's message somewhat empty. The subject matter of the discussions in the film is of the sort that other filmmakers have successfully executed. The difference is that when someone like Richard Linklater handles these types of debates, he puts them in a context where they complement the story's structure and themes. Winter Sleep's lengthy discussions are mostly languid and inconsequential, despite the occasional zinger.
To its credit, Winter Sleep is appropriately convincing as a heady and austere drama. Tiryaki does an expectedly beautiful job of photographing the Anatolian landscapes when the film actually ventures outside. And when Ceylan allows the camera to actually move, Winter Sleep oh-so-briefly breaks through its stagnant, stagey framing and hum drum editing.Yet all of the mature, thoughtful craftsmanship in the world can't prop up the screenplay's lumbering, protracted dialogues. At its worst, Winter Sleep is dramatic masturbation that presents itself as atmospheric, contemplative filmmaking, despite offering nothing more than conversations that can be overheard in the stuffiest halls of nose-in-the-air academia.