Impenetrably dense, extravagantly wordy and very, very long, safe to say Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep,” before this afternoon’s Cannes screening the bookie’s favorite to take the Palme, won’t be winning him many new fans from the general public. And in its deliberate, almost mischievous delight in eschewing any kind of conventional narrative structure (one in which things occasionally happen), it may even lose him a few, especially among that number (this writer included) inclined to goodwill based on his last film, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” which, in its embrace of certain genre elements, felt like a breath of fresh air and, strangely, a liberation from the occasionally stultifying vibe of his prior films. But judging by the ovation that followed, for the benefit of the film team who were in attendance as this press screening doubled as the film’s gala premiere (forcing VIP guests into the daft-looking position of having to wear full evening dress in the middle of the day), those already fully on board the Ceylan train will rally around it, maybe, we could cattily suggest, because they simply don’t want to see a hard afternoon’s work (and this film is work) go to waste.
The adjective “Chekhovian” is already being bandied about by the film’s supporters in an effort to convey the film’s claustrophobic theatricality (helpfully, Ceylan includes a “thanks to Chekhov” note in the closing credits to point potentially floundering viewers in the right direction). And the comparison is somewhat apt as until its last third it's largely a three-hander, and really amounts to a series of long, involved and frequently fractious conversations between the three principals, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), his wife Nihal (the gorgeous Melisa Sozen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Together as a threesome or in pairs, curled up in the warren-like hotel that Aydin and Necla own, their various relationships all start to fray as winter closes in, and they progressively rip shreds from each other’s perceived vanities and follies (intellectual arrogance, moral naivety, misanthropy, to name a few). The theatrical parallels are clear, but as unforgivingly dialogue-driven as it is, often with ten-minute-plus scenes in which there’s not a single moment of hush as the protagonists alternately pontificate and sling barbs at each other, for anyone relying on the wall-to-wall subtitles it feels more like a novel—it’s a film we spent three-and-a-quarter hours reading. In fact, there are ideas and attitudes outlined here that may even have made for a pretty good novel, so it's unfortunate that the experience is like reading that book only with someone else turning the pages at a speed you can’t control. And you can’t just skip the boring bits.
Of course, Ceylan can’t be accused of lacking skill as a director or intelligence as a writer—there certainly is psychological insight into the character of Aydin, an ex-actor who rules his sprawling hotel, has a handy lackey to drive him around and carry his bags, and collects rent from nearby tenants in the manner of a feudal lord. Less so, however, the female characters who seem to exist solely to be alternate mouthpieces for some long and self-contradictory quasi-intellectual tirade, just so the camera can point at someone other than Bilginer. That said, the performances are strong (bar a scene between Aydin and Nihal in which Bilginer suddenly plays Aydin as so one-note patronizing and condescending toward his young wife that we just wanted to punch him) and Ceylan’s and DP Gokhan Tiryaki's way with composition and cinematography is in evidence even in the interior scenes (which are most of them), lighting faces warmly and designing shots richly, which needs to happen when almost everything takes place in shot-reverse-shot, he-says-then-she-says format.
But the unpleasantness of being constantly trapped in the middle of conversations of increasing resentment and bitterness starts to take its toll less than halfway through this marathon-length film as we start to realize that just as the characters all seem defined by the overweening desire to have the last word in every discussion (the “and one more thing” syndrome reaches epic, almost comical, proportions later on when scene after scene seems to have ended only for Aydin to chime back in with a another lengthy bit of speechifying), it’s a foible of Ceylan’s too. The overwriting of every single discussion smacks less of realistic debate than of a writer/director in the throes of a fit of didacticism who simply never trusts his audience to get his meaning without it being iterated and reiterated to the point of white noise.
Cinema, we’re often told, is a dialogue between audience and filmmaker, a two-way street in which meaning is constructed in space between the words and pictures the director presents, and the mind of the viewer. But Ceylan’s film is a monologue and a relentless one, leaving no room for us to interpret or engage with the material he presents. That material may indeed be rich with ideas and replete with insight, but you have to be a very dedicated viewer not to feel a bit cheated at the paltry return on the investment of so much time and effort into a film that is at best disinterested in, and at worst disdainful of its audience. [C]