CANNES – I'll say this much (and plenty of people today are saying far more) for Nuri Bilge Ceylan: it takes a brazen kind of confidence to build a 196-minute film from wall-to-wall conversation on such matters as intellectualism, altruism and class politics on the Turkish steppes, and then to go ahead and title it “Winter Sleep.” Like “The Milk of Sorrow” or “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker,” it's the kind of wilfully austere art-house moniker that dyed-in-the-wool populists might invent in a fit of dismissive satire.
They might also, if they had the time and inclination, dream up the film that lies behind a title I wish were more deceptively po-faced: swaddling its many moments of intelligence and curiosity in turgid explication and self-admiring form, “Winter Sleep” is unabashed essay cinema that makes difficulty its prime artistic objective. Not difficulty of interpretation, you understand: Ceylan has perhaps never presented his ideas quite so forthcomingly, as his actors converse in self-sealed analytical paragraphs that allow little room for idiosyncratic reading or reflection. We're talking sheer endurance here: love it or lump it, “Winter Sleep” is one tiring standstill.
Ceylan has never been a merchant of merriment, and nor should he be: his best films have achieved a kind of humane grace through their severity that rewards the work they require. Recently, his foray into genre-infused territory — the dense procedural web of “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the florid noir of “Three Monkeys” — gave punch and urgency to his more remote thematic preoccupations. “
Winter Sleep” steps back from that development, returning to the less disciplined, ruminative structures of “Distant” or “Climates,” though with the grandiose formal heft he has since cultivated. It's not the most digestible combination. Every time I found myself marvelling at the former photographer's knack for staggered widescreen composition or earthy, fire-lit command of visual tone, it would strike me just how little attention I had been paying to the words piling up between these sandy walls.
Never mind, there are plenty more where those came from. The danger of verbosity is indeed one of the talking points in a film that isn't devoid of self-awareness: “Sometimes the disguise of lyricism makes it stink of sentimentality,” says Necla (Demet Akbag) witheringly to her brother Aydin (Haluk Biginer), a pompous, embittered actor-turned-hotelier-turned-essayist who has seemingly devoted himself to none of these professions with the commitment of his full-time gasbaggery. She's having a dig at the rhetoric-heavy advice columns he writes for the local paper in their sleepy Anatolian village, a community unworldly enough to indulge his narrow pretensions; perhaps she's having a dig at Ceylan too.
Aydin's is presented as a kind of cautionary tale of the aggressive vanity that sprouts when mediocre intelligence goes unchallenged: “Everyone has their fans somehow,” he is further told. “You shouldn't take praise seriously.” As in Mike Leigh's “Mr. Turner,” Ceylan appears to be addressing his critics — admiring and otherwise — here, though it's not immediately clear whether he's being self-deprecating or self-excepting with this jab. Certainly, no film that namechecks Chekhov and Voltaire in its closing credits could be accused of modesty: with its theatrical scene construction and surfeit of unhappy family members nursing thwarted personal ambitions and petty social jealousies, the film is veritably begging for comparisons to Chekhovian drama. Perhaps it's laying a trap for the director's more susceptible fans, but the writing is earnest enough to suggest otherwise. Neither approach, it has to be said, gives the audience an awful lot of credit.
Played with chiding, childish implacability by Biginer, Aydin may be a manifestation of the artist's most unflattering insecurities. But he's positioned as our lone-wolf hero all the same, increasingly frozen out of his home with each protracted argument he takes up — whether it's with his sister, his tenants, or his much younger wife (Melisa Sozen), a would-be community leader whose independent fundraising projects damage his ego, and their relationship, to an ugly and possibly irreparable point. He's a character so unremittingly (and unvaryingly) loathsome that it's hard to invest much in his unearned redemption — signalled toward the end in a shift to snow-flecked lyricism that doesn't quite disguise a sentimental stink.
Ceylan has made far humbler films than “Winter Sleep” that nonetheless suggest so much more about humanity and community: themes become smaller when expressed in so many words, which the hefty script, by Ceylan and his wife Ebru, does repeatedly. “Show, don't tell” may be a bland Screenwriting 101 mantra, but it's not an invalid one: each relationship here has history that could be more compellingly conveyed through behavior than through tetchy speechifying. (And not always good speechifying: I'm pretty sure Chekhov wouldn't have quoted the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” twice in a single exchange.)
The drab preponderance of two-person dialogues even inhibits Ceylan's vast cinematic language. Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki lends proceedings his customarily textured, kiln-baked beauty, but his capacity for directing our gaze is untested by a film that gives him so little to shoot over so much screen acreage. It's when the camera is permitted to observe, rather than record, the characters that true human comedy occurs: the mutually unwilling impasse that settles over a room when a boy is invited to kiss his elder's hand, the tacit humiliation of presenting a male visitor with female slippers, the sighing shuffle of a woman leaving a room filled with an unclosed argument. Ceylan seems wrapped up in his words on this occasion, but “Winter Sleep” is most remarkable on the few occasions it keeps schtum.