Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.
Winter Sleep (2014)
“This is a great surprise for me,” declared Nuri Bilge Ceylan at the end of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, when Jane Campion revealed that her jury was handing his latest film, Winter Sleep, highest honors. Was this false modesty or does the Turkish director—now a five-time prizewinner at Cannes—ignore his own press? Smart money was always on Ceylan: From the moment it was announced that this darling of the fest was returning to the French Riviera with a three-and-a-half-hour magnum opus, oddsmakers were calling it the one to beat. Frontrunner status never passed to a different movie, even after Winter Sleep actually screened, inspiring a mixed reaction among the critics in attendance. Prognosticators predicted possible upsets, but in the end, the Palme D’Or went to the movie everyone immediately assumed it would go to. How dully expected.
I wasn’t there to see Ceylan graciously accept the award he was apparently preordained to receive. But I was there, on the third day of my first Cannes, for the packed premiere of his film. Winter Sleep was the longest but not the best of the 18 movies that competed for the Palme this May—a talky, chilly drama, stretched without proper reason across a mammoth timeframe. The film is expertly acted, beautifully filmed, and often sharply written. It’s also ungainly, with a plot that keeps creeping along, at least an hour past its suitable endpoint. Ceylan, a photographer who got into moviemaking in the mid-’90s, has increased the size and scope of his canvas with each new movie, his ambitions ballooning with his acclaim. But bigger isn’t always better: While Campion claimed at the awards ceremony that she “could have happily stayed [in the movie] for another couple of hours,” she was representing what must be seen as a minority opinion. The film, which could hit U.S. theaters as early as the end of the year, might send viewers spiraling into… well, see the second word of its title.
Even more so than usual, this year’s Cannes lineup was heavy on stories of class conflict, privilege (or lack thereof), and power. Two biopics—Bertrand Bonello’s shallow Saint Laurent and Mike Leigh’s lively Mr. Turner—each devoted more than two-and-a-half hours to the lifestyles of their rich and famous subjects, while David Cronenberg weirded up ancient anti-Hollywood clichés in the facile Maps To The Stars. Every day seemed to bring a different vision of toxic entitlement: There was Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which cast Steve Carrell as an aristocratic sociopath, and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, the quasi-Biblical saga of a fat-cat mayor putting the squeeze on one unlucky family. The Dardennes, two-time Palme winners who have always made films about the marginalized, returned to the festival with Two Days, One Night, a disarming tale of working-class perseverance. And Wild Tales, a zany Argentinian anthology, devoted the majority of its black comic vignettes to social unrest—pitting a sports-car-driving yuppie against an angry trucker, a disgruntled demolitionist against an uncaring bureaucracy, and so forth. To attend the festival was to be constantly reminded that there are haves and have-nots in this world.
At first glance, class appears to be the chief subject of Winter Sleep, too. Ceylan might well have recycled the title of his previous film, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia: The setting, again, is Asia Minor, and there’s a comparably mythic quality to the storytelling. Carved into the Turkish countryside is a rural hotel, its individual units spread across the region’s gorgeous topography. The establishment is owned and operated by a wealthy windbag named Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who lives a life of relative luxury and minor celebrity, collecting rent checks from the mostly impoverished tenants of his hotel. A retired actor, he toils away on a non-fiction book about Turkish theater and pens a scathing opinion column for the local newspaper, using the platform to take potshots at his neighbors. He fancies himself a benevolent cultural diplomat, imparting wisdom upon a community he neglects. He is despicable, but fascinatingly so.
The plot commences with a literal thrown stone; the son of a tenant hurls it at the windshield of Aydin’s car, avenging the humiliation his drunkard dad, Ismail (Nejat Isler), has suffered at the hands of the landlord’s loan sharks. Moments later, Aydin’s driver (Ayberk Pekcan) is demanding compensation from Ismail, the two nearly coming to blows. Notably, Aydin hangs back during this confrontation, allowing his hired help to do his dirty work. This is the first sign of the man’s cowardice, and Winter Sleep appears for a while to be building, slowly but surely, to an explosion of class warfare—a violent reckoning for Aydin, a self-described “king” whose “subjects” have had enough.
But Ceylan, an unconventional dramatist, rarely delivers the kind of satisfying catharsis his plots initially seem to promise: Anatolia is an existential police procedural that blatantly forgoes closure, while Three Monkeys is essentially a noir that perversely keeps its genre elements—murder, adultery, etc.—off camera. Winter Sleep similarly bucks expectation, in this case by circumventing the revenge-of-the-underclass narrative it seems to be unspooling. There is a kind of comeuppance in store for Aydin, though it comes not from the locals, but from his inner circle of loved ones—his divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), who grows weary of her brother’s pompous musings, and his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), whose charity work the man condescendingly dismisses. These two women decide, separately but almost simultaneously, to knock their boorish benefactor down a few notches. Ceylan seems to be arguing that a person like Aydin can only be wounded by someone of his own social stature. (For all his boiling contempt, Ismail is as powerless to enact revenge as he is to turn his own life around.)
Winter Sleep ends up operating like an adaptation of some imaginary classic of Russian theater, a lost Chekhov play relocated to a different European backdrop. Less reliant than Anatolia was on gorgeous scenery (though there’s plenty of that, too), the film unfolds as a series of languid, exquisitely passive-aggressive conversations. The characters engage in protracted tête-à-têtes—talking over the crackle of a fire, dredging up old failures and disappointments, and speaking of Istanbul the way the sisters of Chekhov’s Three Sisters speak of Moscow. These scenes work, and often fiercely well, because of Bilginer: He makes his prick of a protagonist into a distinctly, amusingly loathsome creation—a petty blowhard who disguises his insults as helpful advice and shelters his insecurity behind the veil of intellectual elitism. At heart, Winter Sleep is a character study, its supporting players existing as fed-up foils for its petty tyrant of a “hero.”
So why, pray tell, did the film need to run for 196 ass-numbing minutes? There’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that pushes well beyond conventional feature length; the 450-minute Satantango is not just one of the longest, but also one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen, largely because its director, Béla Tarr, knows exactly how to fill that expanded space. Winter Sleep, by contrast, simply doesn’t know when to say when. The film builds to a pair of lengthy quarrels—big, brutal battles between Aydin and his family members. From there, it just keeps on going and going and going, sending its main character on a questionably necessary detour and engineering a bitter kiss-off for the wronged Ismail. Did Nihal really need her own blinkered worldview upended, too?
Winter Sleep suggests that Ceylan may have lost his sense of proportion, his understanding of which stories require the sprawl of an epic runtime and which don’t. Distant, his 2002 international breakthrough, remains one of his best movies, employing a modest length to tackle modest material—the emotional vagaries of putting up an estranged relative, especially during a time of personal crisis. (It also contains maybe the funniest scene Ceylan has ever written, in which one character, hoping to masturbate, attempts to bore another one to bed by putting on Tarkovsky’s Stalker.) On the other end of the spectrum is the two-and-a-half-hour Anatolia, which uses its extended timeframe to create and sustain an atmosphere of suffocating ennui, as well to compound the absurdity of its characters’ wild-goose chase of an assignment. Winter Sleep simply stretches itself too thin, negating some of its power in the process. I wish Ceylan had let it be a drama instead of inflating it into a monument to his expanding ambition.
The winner of the Palme should be a bold vision; in general, I’d rather see Cannes hand its top prize to a radical and flawed film than a better one that takes no big risks. (Mr. Turner, a movie I greatly prefer to Winter Sleep, would have been a boringly safe pick.) But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Campion and company picked Ceylan’s epic at least partially on principle—as a blanket endorsement of hefty, uncompromising, capital-A art films, and a belated honor for a director who was “due.” There was nothing very daring, in other words, about selecting the most superficially daring (a.k.a. the longest) of the competition titles, especially given how everyone anticipated the win from the very start. The actual bold move would have been to hand the Palme to one of the shortest films in competition—a new work from filmmakers who aren’t due, as they’ve won before, and who had the audacity to come to Cannes with something genuinely, unfashionably uplifting. That would have really turned heads.
Did it deserve to win? As you can probably guess, my imaginary Palme vote lies with a different film. And for once, I can speak with complete confidence about my pick, as I’ve seen all 18 of the 2014 competition titles. (Admittedly, I dozed through a little of The Wonders, which unexpectedly ended up taking home the Grand Prix, or second place.)
By my estimation, Winter Sleep is actually the fifth-finest of the slate. Leviathan, a different downer from a different Cannes darling, added a welcome dose of sly humor to Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s repertoire; some wagered that the film, which screened on the second-to-last day of the festival, might actually win the Palme. (Zvyagintsev had to settle for a screenplay prize.) Wild Tales, by Cannes newbie Damian Szifron, displayed a wicked, infectious energy—though, to be fair, anything as irreverent as this ends up looking like a breath of fresh air when sandwiched among a bunch of much bleaker options. And while I didn’t love it quite as intensely as some of my peers, Mr. Turner is a fine biopic, beholden to the conventions of the genre but also blessed with a superb lead performance by Timothy Spall. (Sony Classics will release the movie, to presumably rapturous praise, in December.)
But my favorite of the competition titles, and the only one that I wouldn’t hesitate to call great, is Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes’ best movie since The Son. The Flemish siblings have won the Palme twice before—once in 1999, once in 2005—but that shouldn’t have stopped them from taking it again for this stirring and ingenious drama, which reconfigures 12 Angry Men into a series of mini moral dilemmas for a rocky economic age. It, too, is scheduled to open toward the end of the year, so clear a spot on any prospective best-of-the-year lists.
For fellow shameless listophiles, I’ve ranked the competition titles below. Every one through Maps To The Stars is worth a look. After that: yikes.
Two Days, One Night
Goodbye To Language
Clouds Of Sils Maria
Maps To The Stars
Still The Water
Next up: Pulp Fiction