Last year, the Cannes Film Festival jury handed over the prestigious Palme d’Or to the nearly 3.5-hour Turkish character study ‘Winter Sleep’. That seemed like the ultimate evidence of art film cultural snobbism at the fancypants fest. I had my doubts about the movie, but was willing to hang onto some hope that it might be a secret masterpiece of quiet contemplation. Well, now I can finally confirm that this movie is a triumphant and possibly even unparalleled achievement in the history of punishing boredom. Thanks, Cannes!
Writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’) has acknowledged that the film owes a tremendous debt to the writing of Anton Chekhov, and that influence is clear. He’s crafted a tiny story about a tiny man with big implications and generous length. The central subject is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a troubled, befuddled and neurotic landlord in a remote Anatolian community. He once lived in the city and has big aspirations for his life and his writing. However, his reality in no way reflects his dreams. He’s stuck monitoring the rent of an impoverished community who deeply resent him. He also writes editorials for a local paper that inspire resentment while embodying his sad, broken dreams.
The film merely follows Aydin through a series of awkward encounters and long, lingering conversations filled with quietly pointed barbs and observations. A child breaking a window leads to a feud with particularly poor neighbors. Aydin also feuds with his young wife Nihil (Melisa Sozen) and sister Necla (Demet Akbag) about small issues that turn existential. He feuds with everyone, really – just not in a way that tends to register as dramatic or exciting. No, the movie is composed of long, endless chats performed in stern passive-aggressive monotones. They could be about everything, but they mostly feel like they’re about nothing.
It’s pretty clear what Nuri Bilge Ceylan is aiming for in this 196-minute act of cinematic sedateness. The director attempted to craft the most intimate of small scale dramas into something epic. He hopes to slowly poke and prod out small, delicate observations and emotions from his characters until they provoke grand visions of life in the audience’s mind. Clearly, this approach has worked for many critics, and I can see what has seduced them about ‘Winter Sleep’. I just don’t buy it.
Sure, the performances are delicately controlled and the dialogue is often cleverly constructed into slow-burning gasoline fires. However, with nothing much to build to (even though that’s the point), it can be damn near impossible to retain an emotional or intellectual connection to the material. The movie is boring, punishingly so. It’s that simple, and it’s a real shame that no one saw the obvious irony of releasing such a desperately dull and unforgivably long movie in January that’s titled ‘Winter Sleep’.
The shame of it all is that I even kind of like Nuri Bilge Ceylan when he’s on his game. His movies are always long and languid in form and style. That’s what he does, and quite often the effect can be almost hypnotic. Often, that’s a result of his photographer’s eye picking out stunning imagery to tickle the senses while embracing stories with some sense of grand drama hidden within. That normally provides enough tension and release to justify the slow burn ordeal of actually watching his movies.
In ‘Winter Sleep’, he’s stripped all of that away in an attempt to embrace his soft and slow sensibility. When stretched out to an unforgivable 196 minutes, it’s simply too much to take. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a filmmaker entertaining his viewers while still challenging them and pushing the medium into untapped terrain. But tip that balance too far, and merely engaging with a film transforms into an endurance test pushing good will to the limit. For me, Ceylan goes too far this time. Despite all of its intriguing elements, I absolutely cannot recommend ‘Winter Sleep’ for anything beyond its extraordinary ability to cure insomnia in even the most caffeinated soul.