January 10, 2015 § 1 Comment
‘I threw my money in the stove! I don’t want money, or land, or sheep, and there is no need for people to take off their hats when I pass.’ says Solomon Moisevitch, the proud and angry younger brother of the obsequious Moisey, in Chekhov’s ‘The Steppe’. Solomon makes a fleeting appearance and the novella continues without him for another 100 pages, yet this indelible character is one of the elements that make ‘The Steppe’ a masterpiece. After seeing Winter Sleep, whose director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is widely viewed as Chekhovian, I thought of ‘The Steppe’, which I must have read five or six years ago. What I remembered most was Solomon, though not his name or his words. I half-glimpsed a connection between the story and the film, but couldn’t clarify it. Winter Sleep is dense with literary and visual references.
It’s a film with a great many qualities, besides its director’s undoubted intelligence and seriousness. There are superb performances, arresting cinematography that gives eloquence to the landscape, to interiors, faces and objects, and to a script that emerges unscathed from static scenes of lengthy dialogue. Many of the reviews have been ecstatic, some with qualification and demur. None I’ve read has chimed with my own response; I couldn’t work out why the film left me with an irritating aftertaste, so I abandoned my initial intention to blog about it. But it persists in being a film people talk about, provoking different shades of enthusiasm or doubt, and I decided to have another try. I even started rereading The Steppe.
The first of Ceylan’s films I saw was Distant (2002), a melancholy chamber piece set in a silent snowbound Istanbul that’s very beautifully rendered. The two characters are a photographer in early middle age whose wife has left him, and his younger country-bumpkin cousin who has arrived needing a place to stay until he finds a job. Both are lonely and lost but neither is of any comfort to the other and the cousin’s presence becomes increasingly unwelcome. With elegant economy, it says a lot. Since then Ceylan’s films have grown in scope and ambition. Three Monkeys (2008), a thriller of considerable complexity in plot and characterisation was ruined for me by the distracting and overblown visual effects; a lack of self-restraint that tips over into bombast. Then came Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), where ambition was matched by achievement. In a quieter way, Winter Sleep is just as ambitious.
Its central character Aydin is a wealthy, handsome man of around 60, a retired actor with time for restlessly dilettantish writing pursuits and now the owner of a hotel in Cappadocia, a region of cave-house burrows which on the wintry outside looks like some giant slumbering beast hunched under the snow. The charming, modest face he shows to hotel clients masks a deeply self-centred and controlling individual, censuring his estranged wife’s commitment to local charities and lording it over his divorced sister, both of whom live with him in the hotel. This side of the film progresses as a family psychodrama; in one scene Aydin’s sister listens agreeably to a monologue, only to react next time with a damning litany of home truths that is startling and dramatically bold. A friend aptly noted Bergman’s influence. Bergman didn’t immediately come to mind since I’m not a fan of his angst-ridden later films and I had thought instead of Arnaud Desplechin’s 2005 Kings and Queen, where a narcissist receives a shattering family verdict.
Beyond these bourgeois storms lies a world of local poverty and the tenants for whom Aydin displays contempt and indifference. His lack of compassion shocks particularly after an incident when the child of the unemployed Ismail throws a stone that cracks the windscreen of Aydin‘s Land Rover. Ismail’s brother, Hamdi, the village hodja, pleads for his impoverished family to be spared the exorbitant cost of the damage. Aydin, we learn, is heartless as well as self-deceiving, too full of regard for his own enlightened secularism to be moved by the lives of others, too full of bad faith.
Hamdi is the appeaser, his self-abasement done through gritted teeth and a fixed grin. Ismail and his young son offer resistance, the latter passively, by fainting at the hotel rather than make the apology being forced out of him, Ismail in a fierce gesture of refusal, the rawest, most powerful moment in the film. Rereading ‘The Steppe’, I discovered that this scene is in fact a quotation, or rather a paraphrase: Solomon’s defiance enacted, emphasising Chekhov where he most resembles Dostoevsky, who is another of Ceylan’s acknowledged sources, along with Voltaire.
After this the focus again returns to the domestic and Aydin’s wife, Nihal, confronts him with an existential indictment even longer than his sister’s. From this point the world beyond begins to feel like a subplot, no longer integrated with the claustrophobic family narrative. Signs of conscience appear as Aydin releases a horse he had captured; a very beautiful scene of dark and light, filmed from inside the cave where the horse is imprisoned, as if the camera at least has a different perspective from that of the captor. Whose freedom is at issue here? Is it just the horse’s, or are we to believe Aydin will accord the same dignity to his human captives, and free them from their debt? Is this the beginning of empathy? Later, we see flickerings of remorse as he contemplates the bloodied corpse of a hare he has shot in the snow. I’m not convinced by these tender metaphors.
It may be the fault of an unintended lack of balance, an excessive leaning on the literary and theatrical props of Aydin’s life, but the film ultimately struck me as over invested in its central character’s emotional vicissitudes, de-centering the moral questions set up earlier. I mistrusted its ending, Aydin’s ambiguous change of heart towards his wife, expressed through an inner voice, perhaps just the voice of self-interest. If this is a step towards self-redemption it is not of a kind that rights any wrongs in the matter of charity or justice.