Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan makes deeply atmospheric movies filled with long pauses and delicate visual schemes, so it’s no surprise that he tends to hold back when talking about his work. That includes “Winter Sleep,” which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last May and opens in New York this weekend. Asked in a recent e-mail interview if landing the biggest prize in the global film scene felt like a different sort of validation after gathering acclaim for his work for nearly 20 years, Ceylan kept it simple: “I don’t know.”
He used that phrase a lot. Like his films, Ceylan is a mystery who requires a certain amount of scrutiny to appreciate.
The story of “Winter Sleep,” which runs over three hours, finds the director dealing with the travails of greedy landowner Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who owns a vast plot of land and lords over its impoverished inhabitants while bickering with his younger wife (Melisa Soezen). Over the course of the movie, the Scrooge-like man confronts his shortcomings, both personally and professionally, through a series of extensive monologues punctuated by telling pauses.
That’s typical for Ceylan, whose other acclaimed dramas — which include the slow-burn chronicle of a police investigation, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” and the devastating tale of a crumbling relationship “Climates” — tend to quietly develop narrative through behavior and stunning imagery that harkens back to his roots as a photographer. “Winter Sleep” finds Ayden often gazing out his window at a barren land, an image that has near-biblical ramifications, even as the character’s specific situation has more to do with internal struggles. The approach has its rewards for viewers willing to let the experiential nature of Ceylan’s storytelling wash over them. But that’s obviously a limited crop: Released in the U.S. late in the year by Adopt Films, the movie is a major hidden gem on this year’s release calendar.
For Ceylan, however, that’s nothing new. “First of all, I believe that even just the structural characteristics of my films prevent them from being widely accepted,” he said. “I dislike clear and straight forward plots, and classifiable characters. They are not easily likable. There’s generally quite a distance between my films and the expectations of most spectators. So I knew and was ready to accept this reality from the beginning, that I will be condemned to be the filmmaker of a minority in general all the time. That’s no problem. Maybe that is better.”
He admitted that the volume of acclaim the movie received at Cannes took him by surprise. “It was better than my expectations, anyway,” he said. “In a world where even Andrei Tarkovsky did not get a Palme d’Or, how can you exaggerate the meaning of such things?”
The spirit of Tarkovsky is certainly alive in Ceylan’s predilection for stillness, mesmerizing long takes and cryptic plots. But for “Winter Sleep,” Ceylan turned to a different inspiration — the short stories of Anton Chekhov. The author’s 1892 tale “The Wife” first caught the director’s eye 15 years ago, but as he developed the project, he added other Chekhov stories into the mix, including “Excellent People” from 1886. More than anything else, however, Ceylan remained fixated on the way “The Wife” explores its titular character’s situation by setting aside plot in favor of foregrounding her own self-reflections. “Not much actually happens in this story, but there is kind of a feeling that as if the whole life is there,” Ceylan said. “Since the strength of the story comes mainly from the descriptions and the inner thoughts, it seemed to me difficult at first to transform into film language.”
Then Ceylan made “Anatolia” — for which he won the runner-up prize at Cannes — and figured out a process for bringing Chekhov to life: by conveying deeper meanings in the texture of the literal events of the story. “Chekhov gave me a perspective to look at life,” Ceylan said. “I think he feels the tragic dimension of our existence very deeply and he succeeds in telling the kinds of situations initially thought to be indescribable very easily.”
In the process of adapting Chekhov with his wife Ebru, Ceylan used the author’s prose to develop many of the lengthy monologues that percolate throughout the film. Then they developed the story around it. “We mixed everything until we thought we reached a kind of equilibrium point in my mind,” he said. “In a way, you’re making a soup. You add various ingredients to make the soup taste better and to make everything in harmony.”
The higher volume of dialogue forced Ceylan to dial down some of the trickier camerawork found in his earlier films. “The volume of dialogue forced me to consider the stylistic strategies as secondary concerns this time,” he said. “Making these unusually long monologues work was more important and crucial this time. If I knew that if they didn’t work, the film would collapse, in every sense, to rubbish. That was the feeling deep inside me during the shooting.”
Of course, there’s an implicit irony in the director adapting a short story into a feature length project that runs longer than most. But Ceylan insisted that running time is the last thing on his mind. “When we finished writing I realized the script was two times longer than ‘Anatolia,'” he said. “So I understood then that this film will be long. But I never have any commercial concerns when I make a film so I just did not mind. I shot everything in the script and also many more things. And in the editing the film came out like this. You can be sure that I did not make any special effort to bring the film’s running time to meet industry standards at all.”
But Ceylan was quick to point out that the challenges of the movie’s length—from a commercial perspective, at least—didn’t surprise him. “The voyage for a long film is really not easy. Every single step within the standards of the system becomes a burden,” he said. “But in my case there is nothing to do. Sometimes I even think that I secretly like these kind of challenges of filmmaking.”
Ceylan’s understanding of his limited appeal may explain why he has never produced work outside his native country even as his career continues to evolve. Asked if he would ever consider directing beyond Turkey’s borders, he only replied, “I don’t think so.” But then again, Ceylan’s movies excel at ambiguity, so anything’s possible. Pushed to reveal his next project, he only offered, “I don’t know yet.” In the meantime, the numbers of viewers who already appreciate Ceylan’s work may be small — but they’ll be ready.