First thoughts on Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (2014)

This post will be no more than a few possibly unrelated thoughts on Ceylan’s new film and its connection to slowness. Winter Sleep is so rich that I have serious doubts about the critiques that have surfaced by critics who watch several films a day and have deadlines to meet. I remember Jonathan Romney saying in Newcastle in March 2012 that this was exceptionally difficult when it came to certain films, such as those of Béla Tarr or Lav Diaz. Ceylan’s film is no different, and even though I’m fully aware that critiques have been largely favourable, I wonder just how thorough they can be after a three-hour intense experience of lengthy dialogues which hit wound points on so many levels for all the characters that it needs more than one viewing for a critique to be genuine.

Hence, I’m not even trying here to write up something nice about Winter Sleep. Suffice to say that the film is a long journey through sadness and frustration, but also through love that is not necessarily mutual. The cinematography is supportive of the melancholic atmosphere of the film. Just the stunning location alone made for a magnificent environment for the narrative.

These things are easy to say when you leave the auditorium. The narrative, even if it appears to be driven by sheer boredom on the part of the characters, is more complex than it looks at first sight. And this is the very part of the film that I do not want to touch yet until I have seen the film a second time.

What ran through my head when I was watching Winter Sleep, though, was how the film may fit into a now growing repertoire of slow films. Compared with films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or, say, Albert Serra, Winter Sleep is not a slow film in the traditional sense. There are very few sweeping landscape shots and almost no ’empty time’. The cuts are plenty and the takes are rather short for a slow film. The film itself, with three hours running time, is comparatively long, but length doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the pace of a film. And yet, for some reason this film felt slow and I couldn’t quite explain why. Perhaps it was the location, hidden in the middle of nowhere that supported the idea of slow time, away from bustling Istanbul. The film was exceptionally heavy on dialogue, which is another characteristic that goes against the ‘tradition’ of slow film.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it was precisely this dialogue-driven aesthetic that made the film appear slow. There is a lot of dialogue in the film, and most of the really heavy scenes are so long that they test your endurance: for how long can you listen to a rather personal chat between brother and sister who accuse each other of this and that, but without getting really angry, as in raising their voices? It felt uncomfortable after a while, because I didn’t think I should be listening to this. This scene between brother and sister is a pivotal scene in fact, lasting for something like twenty minutes. They go on and on. It never seems to end, and for some reason I never felt that it should end. There was simply nothing that could have signified the coming end of the conversation.

There is a lot said that would not normally be said in a film. Very little, in fact, pushes the narrative forward and this is precisely why the film felt slow. You would expect the dialogues to help narrative progression. This is the classical use of dialogue in film, and you can find this classical type even in Lav Diaz’s films, which is strange to say. But putting Ceylan’s films against Diaz’s films makes me see that dialogue in Diaz’s films has the classical purpose. There are few instances where the dialogues are unrelated to the overarching narrative. Winter Sleep is the complete opposite. Most that is said in those three hours, while making an interesting character study, does not seem to be related to the overall narrative. While the dialogue is nevertheless rich in what it reveals in relation to the characters, for some reason a great deal of it was something that would have been cut in a ‘normal’ film. Precisely because of these ‘boring’, endless everyday dialogues the film appears slow. Both characters and viewer are trapped in a loop of boredom, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The many cuts have, surprisingly, little effects on the pace of the film. It’s a strange thing to say because you would expect otherwise. Winter Sleep goes against pretty much everything Slow Cinema is about. But it makes for a really interesting challenge of which aesthetics ‘define’ slowness. I’m looking forward to a second viewing once the DVD is out, and then I’ll return to my initial thoughts and see just how right or wrong I was.

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