The primary purpose of my PopGap project for the past three years has been to force myself out of a comfortable rut of watching mostly short, often sensationalist, and rarely great movies. The 2012 Sight and Sound poll piqued my interest with several titles that were well-known in art film circles but not even close to my limited radar range. That year's poll inspired me to seek out, for the first time, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story and introduced me to the existence of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, whose eight-hour rumination on rural village life Satantango has ever since loomed in my consciousness as a totem of the kind of movie that both fascinates me by virtue of its mere existence and also acts as its own obstacle: who wants to/can spend eight hours watching a mule pull a cart down a road or whatever? (I still haven't watched it; I want to, but the mental effort it requires to make that choice is a considerable bulwark.) This is a roundabout way of getting into the idea of "Slow Cinema," which is considered either a movement or a loose classification of a certain type of art movie, depending on how liberally you apply it. I've watched a few "Slow Movies" as part of PopGap — Eternity, Meek's Cutoff, Yi Yi, Solaris — and liked enough of them to seek out a few extracurricularly — the Romanian drama Beyond the Hills, and, depending on your definition, 2017's much shorter but still wonderful Columbus — but even having discovered my affinity for this narrative format, I often find it difficult to push myself into it when shorter-term low-yield experiences are just as close at hand. For this reason, I was glad to have Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Cannes Palm d'Or-winner Winter Sleep brought to my Potluck Film Festival. This 196-minute rumination on the chasm between self-image and self-actualization among privileged intellectuals in depressed rural Turkey is exactly the kind of movie that looms on my watchlist like an promising-but-untouchable chore, daring me to want it and avoid it forever.
Haluk Bilginer stars in Winter Sleep as Aydın, a wealthy hotelier and property owner in the remote hills of scenic Cappadocia, Turkey. With the operational practicalities of his businesses delegated to employees, Aydin lives a life of the mind, snuggled in his cozy den and insulated from the harsh winter outside — as well as from the routine humiliations and economic difficulties faced by his poor tenants. He writes critical social commentary for a local newspaper and contemplates writing a history of the Turkish theater. Aydin; his young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen); and his embittered sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ), engage in philosophical arguments with little fear that the implications of their sometimes radical ideas will reflect meaningfully on their own comfortable lives.
With its long, contemplative shots (courtesy of Gökhan Tiryaki) of the wind-and-snow-swept landscapes, contrasted with the warmly rustic interiors of Aydin's home, Winter Sleep is aesthetically an extremely accessible example of "Slow Cinema." Its stillness gorgeously evokes the morally aloof half-awake state of its key characters, but with (at least to non-Turkish viewers) an exotic flavor that infuses ostensibly mundane subjects with a surprising liveliness. Aydın's aging face is a comforting window into the movie's stark probing of its characters; it's etched with both humor and gentle concern, even during acts of passive-aggression, as he jealously guards his sense of himself as a benevolent artist against the pangs of pride, insult, and failure that scratch at him from underneath. The openly expressive Sözen is his perfect balance as Nihal, whose desperation to connect her unhappy luxury to something meaningful only amplifies her isolation.
Even though the meatiest parts of WINTER SLEEP's three-plus-hour duration consist of dense and seemingly indulgent dialogs, Ceylan's farsighted plan incorporates these arguments into later events with great resonance, highlighting the stubborn dualities that create rifts within communities, families, and the conflicting wants within oneself. Aydin, Nihal and Necla face, with starkly different constitutions, the discomforting misalignment of their ideals and intentions, their intentions and actions, and their public and private faces, all created by fragile egos sedated by a complacency that governs those who take material needs for granted, even under adverse circumstances.
Winter Sleep is a serious and rewarding flurry of quietly considered ideas that is, like its main character, wrapped in a faux-authentic splendor to protect itself from the chilling consequences of facing the realities without and within.
Winter Sleep was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Wade McCormick. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #87 / 2866 (97%), making it his ninth favorite out of 43 winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. It ranked on my Flickchart at #530 (87%), putting it at number 13 on my chart of 29 Cannes Palme d'Or winners.