Film

A Marriage Crumbles, Beautifully, in Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

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Twitter is doublestuffed with check-your-privilege messages for entitled men, but I’ve rarely seen one as potent as this singular line from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s out-of-time masterwork Winter Sleep, a Chekhovian drama of marriage and class and the way both can inspire insulated cluelessness. “Just once, I’d like you to defend something that might cost you, and have feelings that don’t benefit yourself,” says a miserable young wife (Melisa Sözen) to the wealthy older husband who has given her a life free of all wants — except those of the soul. The wife has devoted herself to charity, to the improvement of education in a nearby village on the Turkish steppe; the husband, a rare soft-spoken blowhard, has recently horned in on her fundraising, eager to show her how to do the books correctly. And such a complaint is rare from this quiet, observant wife. As Nihal, the husband’s sister, puts it, “She’s an expert at criticizing by remaining silent.”

That husband, meanwhile, is something of a pompous lord. He pens dreary columns for a local newspaper, attempting to lift the population to his moral level. He runs a gorgeous hotel hacked out of stone formations, and he’s a landlord who worries his tenants think he’s going soft, even though we learn,
not too far into the film’s (justified) 196-minute running time, that the collection men in his employ recently beat a debtor tenant. This patient, beautiful, painful, engrossing film pits husband and wife against each other and their world
in a series of extended conversations/confrontations. We’re slumped with them in firelit interiors, a chill in our bones, just like theirs, as in long, static takes they talk, mostly without heat, about everything that matters most. For all their silences, these scenes are of the highest drama.

The husband has cruelty and foolishness in him, but he’s not wholly cruel, and he’s not wholly a fool. As Haluk Bilginer’s richly layered performance makes clear, he’s just another man who has done well and has lost the capacity to imagine the lives of those who haven’t: Passively, a little fearfully, he’ll punish the families that can’t pay their rent, even as he’ll go to the trouble of procuring a gorgeous Anatolian horse just to impress one tourist staying in his hotel. He’ll donate money to charity, anonymously, only to brag about it when in his cups — when he proves his wife’s accusations are true by imagining himself as the person for whom life is unfair. The greatest tragedy here: No matter how much people hate him, or how much he might, at moments of revelation, hate himself, that husband is endowed with the confident equilibrium always to keep going, to keep living, to keep assuming that he and his life matter. The wife — not so much.

These tense, arresting scenes could work on a stage, but the film benefits immeasurably from cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki’s lensing of the wintry steppes — broken, barren land for these broken, barren lives. Winter Sleep won 2014’s Palme d’Or, and it would have been competitive any year.