To those who may feel intimidated by the prospect of a three-hour-and-16-minute Turkish movie bearing the somnambulant title “Winter Sleep,” director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has this advice: don’t be afraid to be bored. “To be bored is not important,” he says in a bassy, resonant voice that sounds somehow older and wiser than his 55 years. “It may be because you are not ready for that movie. It’s not the fault of the movie.”
When Ceylan himself first discovered the films of Andrei Tarkovsky as a college student unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, he was utterly baffled by the lauded Russian master. He walked out of a screening of “Solaris” at the halfway point, and stopped a VHS tape of “The Mirror” at a similar juncture. Today, he considers the latter to be the greatest film ever made. “I’ve seen it maybe 20 times,” he says.
But audiences around the world do seem to be ready for “Winter Sleep,” which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (only the second time that honor has been afforded to a Turkish film) and has gone on to earn Ceylan career-best box office at home and abroad. In France alone, where “Winter Sleep” opened against such summer blockbusters as “Lucy” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” it sold more than 300,000 tickets for a gross in excess of $2 million. Optimistic of a similar reception in the U.S., Adopt Films (which acquired the film after Cannes) will open “Winter Sleep” in New York and Los Angeles theaters on December 19, in the thick of awards season.
For those who may be first discovering Ceylan, “Winter Sleep” is both a summary work and an excellent primer, rich in the filmmaker’s signature themes of middle-aged melancholy and marital friction. The setting is central Turkey’s mountainous Cappadocia region, where Aydin, an aging former actor and newspaper columnist runs a small boutique hotel, the Othello, together with his considerably younger wife, Nihal, and his sister Necla, an acerbic divorcee. Also occupying Aydin’s land is a poor tenant family who have recently been threatened with eviction. When the young son of one tenant hurls a retaliatory rock at Aydin’s jeep, nearly causing an accident, it sets in motion a dramatic chain of events that ultimately brings tragic consequences to bear on both houses.
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Where Ceylan’s previous feature, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011), traced the nocturnal procession of a caravan of policemen, lawyers and gravediggers through the desolate steppe in search of a dead body, “Winter Sleep” is, by contrast, a film of daylight and static locations, marked by long, ruminative exchanges between the characters, each a master of doublespeak and passive aggression. Wanting their script to retain a literary feel, Ceylan and his wife Ebru (his frequent screenwriting partner) lifted some of those conversations almost verbatim from two Anton Chekhov stories, “The Wife” and “Excellent People,” which also supplied templates for the characters of Aydin, Nihal and Necla.
Ceylan, who fell in love with Chekov as a teenager, had been mulling a film of “The Wife” for almost two decades, but couldn’t figure out a cinematic approach to the material. “I think, personally, my soul is closer to a Russian soul,” he says the day after a sold-out “Winter Sleep” screening opened a complete retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (where it runs through November 5, concurrent with a similar program at the British Film Institute in London). “I’m quite a melancholic person, and this kind of melancholy is, I think, in the Russian atmosphere. I always felt this kind of melancholy, but when I was younger and I hadn’t yet read the Russian classics, I felt guilty for feeling this way. I felt I was different from the others, abnormal. But when I read Russian literature, I found some similar people, and I felt better. It was a kind of therapy for me.”
The tension in “Winter Sleep” between rural and urban, worker and intellectual, is another Ceylan constant, dating back to his superb second feature, “Clouds of May” (1999), about a big-city filmmaker who returns to his childhood to shoot a film starring his own parents and other relatives. That premise mirrored the actual making of Ceylan’s debut feature, “The Town” (1997), and of an early short, “Cocoon” (1995), both of which starred Ceylan’s mother, Fatma, and his father, Mehmet Emin Ceylan. Then, in “Distant” (2002), Ceylan reversed the same basic formula to tell the story of a rural factory worker who travels to Istanbul to visit his cousin, a curmudgeonly, chain-smoking photographer trying to salvage what remains of his marriage. (In a slyly funny reference to his own love/hate relationship with Tarkovsky, Ceylan included a scene in which the photographer turns off the Russian director’s famously impenetrable sci-fi epic “Stalker” in order to watch porn.)
“As an intellectual person living in Turkey, I feel these tensions every day,” says Ceylan. “I have many friends and relatives in the countryside and I see them very often. When I get rid of my intellectual friends and go to the country to see these people, my mind works very fast, and I begin to think about life more than before. I see my faults, what I lost as a human…many things.”
The first of Ceylan’s films selected for the official competition in Cannes, “Distant” walked away with two major awards from the Patrice Chereau-headed jury: the Grand Jury Prize and a shared best actor prize for stars Muzaffer Ozdemir and Emin Toprak (the latter of whom, Ceylan’s real-life cousin, died in a car accident mere weeks before the film screened in Cannes). In the decade since, Ceylan has brought four subsequent features to Cannes and only once gone home empty-handed. That was for “Climates” (2006), another searing portrait of a marriage in freefall, this time starring the Ceylans themselves as the central couple. It remains a stunning and disquieting film, close to Cassavetes in its feverish emotional pitch, and to Bertolucci in the reckless abandon of its sex scenes.
“I think most of the painful feelings in life come from marriage,” says Ceylan. “When I was young, with my father and mother, their problems gave me deep pain. Strindberg says there is nothing worse than a husband and wife who hate each other. If you can not organize your feelings about this, you will always suffer.”
For Ceylan, making films is one way to grapple with such complex feelings. “Socrates said that the aim of philosophy is to know oneself,” he says. “For me, the cinema is the same thing. I try to know myself better, to relieve my pain about life. In your travels, you see different kinds of people, different kinds of lives, and that makes you think. You ask harsh questions of yourself. I try to understand what it means to be human.”
Another outlet is photography, a practice Ceylan took up years before he ever laid his hands on a movie camera, and continues to indulge between film projects. Through December 13, New York audiences can see Ceylan’s first U.S. photographic exhibition, The World of My Father, on display at the Tina Kim Gallery in Chelsea. The medium-format digital images, taken between 2006 and 2007, share much with Ceylan’s cinema work, including their principal subject: Ceylan’s father, who died at age 90 in 2012. In one of the exhibition’s most striking compositions, “A Winter Day at Galata Bridge,” the elder Ceylan appears in quarter profile, his coat flecked with snow, as a large flock of gulls swirls above the choppy waters of the Golden Horn. As in many a Ceylan film, the sky is heavy and grey, the air thick with unarticulated longing.
“I feel a different kind of satisfaction when I finish a photograph,” says Ceylan. “In film, you deal with hundreds of people, which is sometimes difficult. But with photography, you are like God. You are alone. It’s a kind of meditation.”
As he prepares to head off to yet another career retrospective, this time at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Ceylan notes that, wherever in the world he shows his work, he meets similar audiences — people who may look different and speak various languages, but who connect with the work for many of the same reasons.
“I think there are certain kinds of people in every culture,” he says. “These kind of people ask similar questions about life, and it doesn’t change in New York or anywhere else. You meet these people in Iran, in Singapore, everywhere. And these kind of people make another kind of nation. Through films, you find your soulmates, who live in the same nation with you.”