Winter Sleep of Emotions

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Kaya Genç on Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep

It is not so difficult for me to shrink the list of this year’s best films so far to two works: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep, and Richard Ayoade's The Double, and between them to ask—somewhat George Steineresqually—“Chekhov or Dostoyevsky?” The former film, Winter’s Sleep was adapted from Chekhov’s short stories “Excellent People” and “The Wife”, and The Double is based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story of the same title. Two intense films about intense men, and it isn’t easy to choose between the two.

Of course, Steiner’s original question features Tolstoy instead of Chekhov, but somehow it seems that Tolstoy’s books tend not to work in the world of cinema where adaptations of Russian novelists are easily found but are not always satisfactory. Who was not disillusioned by Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, when it was released in 2012? I yawned throughout the film, despite the newness of Tom Stoppard’s script, the dazzling cinematography, and the facial expression of Keira Knightley which I often find gripping. The film, and its actors, were too perfect, too glorious, too spectacular. I like my film mildly modest, strongly personal and definitely idiosyncratic. Anna Karenina was none of those.

Last month, after seeing Winter Sleep (which, by the way, is this year’s Palme d'Or winner) and The Double (a favorite among most of my nerd friends not least because its leading actor has an uncanny resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg) the same day in a Istanbul cinema, I got more than I asked for: two modest, strongly personal and idiosyncratic films with no ambitions to become mainstream and an inclination to eccentricity. Who cares for the benevolent, non-personal, all-seeing eye of Tolstoy (and of Hollywood, for that matter) when you have writers and filmmakers who can adjust their POVs to such eccentric characters as the wealthy, retired Turkish theatre actor Aydın who wastes away his life typing condescending newspaper columns into his MacBook Pro at his family villa in Cappadocia? And The Double’s Simon, although not the subject of this essay, is so powerful in his insignificance and his ressentiment against others, that I can’t help but feel glad about Ayoade’s choice to approach him subjectively through Simon’s own consciousness rather than that of a detached, and sagely, observer. 

The hero of Winter Sleep, Aydın (“enlightened intellectual” in Turkish, and the name of a city in Turkey’s Aegean Region) is a composite of two Chekhov characters. He is more largely based, I think, on Pavel Andreitch, the protagonist of “The Wife”, the story in which Andreitch’s efforts at writing a “History of Railways” is disrupted when he receives an anonymous letter asking for financial help for peasants in a nearby village. In Ceylan’s film, Aydın, the retired actor, runs a playfully named Hotel Othello and seems to do nothing beside write columns for a local newspaper and plan a work on the “History of Turkish Theatre”.

The other Chekhov character who may have inspired Aydın is Vladimir Semyonitch, the protagonist of “Excellent People”. This charming, talkative and elegant man of literature has a law degree and a membership in the board of a railway but spends his life pursuing a career in writing, first as a theatre critic and then as a critic of fiction. Semyonitch’s first piece is one paragraph long—we know this thanks to Chekhov’s brilliant eye for detail, which places the writerly information in the second paragraph of the story as if to place a signpost there about the long career of insignificance that awaits his character. “From this paragraph he passed on to reviewing, and a year later he had advanced to writing a weekly article on literary matters for the same paper.” His only problem is that the circulation of this local paper is so low that probably a Twitter critic with a few thousand followers today would have a much larger readership than Semyonitch.

Aydın/Andreitch/Semyonitch may write newspaper articles and plan to compose ambitious histories of their favorite subjects, but these do not mean there is an expectant readership waiting for their productions. On the contrary, although they seem like devoted writers, it is the selfish satisfaction brought by writing books that lead them to their desks and inkstands and more often than not their words reach no one and perhaps it is better this way for such dominating figures. Their selfishness is nowhere more clear than in their resentment towards two women, a wife and a sister, who destroy the semblance of happiness and serenity in their lives.

On the face of it Andreitch despises his wife Natalya Gavrilovna only because she despises him. In Chekhov’s story, as in Ceylan’s film, wives’ hatred for their elderly husbands is perfectly understandable for us. Living on the lower storey of the house, and financially dependent on their husbands who had gradually managed to impose a regime of total control on their lives, they—Natalya/Nihal—are basically prisoners.

“She slept, had her meals, and received her visitors downstairs in her own rooms, and took not the slightest interest in how I dined, or slept, or whom I saw,” Andreitch notes, totally unable to give meaning to her anger towards him, and conveniently misinterpreting it as apathy. Aydın’s wife Nihal plays the same role of prisoner throughout the film, and Ceylan seems to take immense pleasure from capturing her melancholy face. As she recites lengthy paragraphs (mostly Turkish translations of Chekhov’s text) you can’t help but wonder what on earth is going on inside her head, and if those intensely nineteenth century sounding words may be her last means of protection from the wrath of her benevolent oppressor.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan wrote the screenplay of Winter Sleep with his photographer wife Ebru Ceylan, whom you may know from his earlier film Climates where they play a married couple in the midst of an emotional crisis. While adapting Chekhov’s work to contemporary Turkey, the couple seem to have perfectly understood the Russian author-cum-doctor’s diagnosis of Andreitch’s relationship with Natalya. Indeed, the pleasure of watching Winter Sleep partly comes from seeing how the husband has an advantage over the wife precisely through his lack of understanding of her feelings. This incomprehension is his biggest power. Witnessing it brings about a sinister, Nabokovian pleasure to the viewer. Intentionally refusing to understand someone is brutal and cruel and is yet a great source of power for the one supposed to do the understanding. 

Aydın, like Andreitch, is surely aware that their passionate, and tormenting, love had become a thing of the past. He acts as if he can’t comprehend Nihal’s resentment but he fails to conceal the delight he takes from seeing it. That his wife is condemned to live in a vicious circle reminds him of the role he has played in the formation of it. And yet, Nihal is also a source of shame for our protagonist since she reminds Aydın of his selfish character and the selfishness of building a life on someone else’s powerlessness.

Neither Aydın nor Andreitch does anything meaningful about the poor peasants whose circumstances they learn about from the anonymous letter. Benevolence, after all, becomes another tool of oppression in their hands. When Nihal sets up an organization to help the poor, Aydın fears losing control over her and before forcefully taking the reins of her organization from his wife, donates a large sum of money under the name “anonymous”, just like Andreitch in Chekhov’s story. This allows them to feel the satisfaction that comes with possessing something that the dispossessed person so certainly lacks.

At the end of Ceylan’s film, the only solution Aydın can come up with about Nihal’s emotional crisis, is to plan his escape from it. But this proves to be a solution he can’t realize, due to extreme weather conditions that stop him from taking the train to the city. Not managing to escape (and consequently, failing to deliver the help he had promised to bring her) Aydın returns to their villa where they live depressingly ever after. As he types the opening sentences of his history, she has disappeared in some part of the house, conveniently silenced.

And yet this is a deceptive finale, since one wonders whether it was really the snow that had stopped Aydın from going to the city so as to allow Nihal a little bit of freedom. For such a calculating mind, there must surely be pleasure in pretending to sacrifice one’s comfort and get away before having to return to the domain where he is the sole master. This set of circumstances further imposes the idea that the husband’s existence is a natural force, and that the vicious circle in which Nihal is trapped must continue to exist, and benefit him, for such is the order of things in life. 

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Ceylan depicts Aydın’s relationship with Nihal in painful detail, and it seems to me as if he’s turned the short story into a novel. He improvises on Chekhov, jams using his notes and produces a larger canvas where the features of Andreitch are zoomed in: his hatred for women, and his personal failure are squared and this intensifies his deceptive strength, as well as his actual shallowness. “Excellent People"s Vladimir Semyonitch perfectly fits into his shoes. He is an equally adept hater, despising his sister just because she correctly reminds him how he wastes away his life.

The narrator of "Excellent People” views the relationship between the siblings from afar: a few months after losing her husband to typhus, Vera comes to live with her brother. But as she sits in his study and eyes him while her brother writes yet another book review, Vera starts voicing her rather nihilist views. “‘My God, how slow it is!’ she said, stretching. 'How insipid and empty life is! I don’t know what to do with myself, and you are wasting your best years in goodness knows what. Like some alchemist, you are rummaging in old rubbish that nobody wants. My God!’”

That she refuses to assign any meaning whatsoever to his critical endeavours rubs Semyonitch the wrong way. In Ceylan’s film, Aydın writes condescending columns about his fellow citizens where he complains about how ignorant, dirty, and uncivilised they are. Born into privilege, he seems to have never heard of the advice Nick Carraway’s father gives to him in his younger years: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one … just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Besides reminding him the uselessness of his vacation as a critic of other people’s creations and actions, Vera/Nermin also comes up with the idea of “nonresistance to evil” which she wants to discuss with her brother who finds it an absurd notion. As Nermin, in all her 'irrationality’, takes pleasure in the idea of doing nothing to stop evildoers of life (she seems to inhabit that Nietzschean place that is beyond good and evil) and in disrupting the mechanisms of civilisation, Semyonitch/Aydın feels oppressed and helpless in the presence of such manifestations of irrationality which reduce his productivity and reveals the emptiness of his life.

So what happens to Aydın after his ordeal with his sister, and his wife? Because Ceylan uses “The Wife"s ending while finishing his film, we watch Aydın as he writes the opening paragraph of his history of Turkish Theatre in the silent, serene and now perfectly controllable environment of his study. However, the reader of "Excellent People” will be aware of Chekhov’s much more sinister ending for his selfish character.

After forcing his sister outside his house, to an unknown future, Semyonitch falls ill with inflammation of the lungs; an abscess develops in his knee and in but a few weeks the productive literary critic of old times, dies. His friend, the narrator, tells us what happens next. It is one of the most compelling, and depressing things Chekhov has ever written:

“We buried him in the Vagankovsky Cemetery, on the left side, where artists and literary men are buried. One day we writers were sitting in the Tatars’ restaurant. I mentioned that I had lately been in the Vagankovsky Cemetery and had seen Vladimir Semyonitch’s grave there. It was utterly neglected and almost indistinguishable from the rest of the ground, the cross had fallen; it was necessary to collect a few roubles to put it in order. But they listened to what I said unconcernedly, made no answer, and I could not collect a farthing. No one remembered Vladimir Semyonitch. He was utterly forgotten.”

Utterly forgotten. That is the end we all dread, but most likely will have. I guess this is enough to provide the answer to the Steineresque dilemma above. I will go with Chekhov (these two stories are among his most Dostoyevskian anyway) and say, in a confident voice, that Winter Sleep is this year’s best film… so far.

Kaya Genç is a novelist from Istanbul. He is curating a book on Istanbul for the American University in Cairo Press and working on his first English novel. He tweets @kayagenc and blogs at www.kayagenc.net.