Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep (2014), an elaborate (and somewhat epic in length) character study that takes place in the beautiful region of Cappadocia in Eastern Turkey, is purportedly an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story The Wife. Chekhov’s story tells the tale of an estranged couple—a wealthy man and his younger wife whom he fully supports and who seems to resent him for doing so—against the background of famine and poverty among peasants, who the husband and wife, each in their own way, want to alleviate. Most of the short story is literally found in the film, with added subplots, including one focusing on the plight of the impoverished Anatolian population living on the husband’s property.
However, unlike the short story that is told strictly from the husband’s perspective, the film expands it, notably to the wife’s. As a result, there is a feeling of thematic dispersal and structural impurity to the film, especially when set against the crystalline trajectory of Chekhov’s text.
Russian high culture has played a very important role in the work of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan—from Chekhov to Tarkovsky and to the leftist fantasies about communism entertained by the secular (and wealthy) Turkish establishment, to which Ceylan belongs. But as is so often the case, the manifest, referenced influence—here, Chekhov—is not the real source or the true inspiration of a text, on a deeper level. Rather, it serves as the dramatic scaffolding for a different mood and spirit altogether. Indeed, curiously, and despite Ceylan’s attestation in interviews of his profound appreciation and remarkable understanding of Chekhov, the film’s tone more closely evokes Dostoevsky than Chekhov, whose ‘ghost’ seems almost entirely absent from this mostly humorless, ponderous film. Two of the film’s most dramatic scenes – a kid who collapses rather than asking for forgiveness for throwing a stone at the landowner, and the boy’s father who burns the money the landowner’s wife brings him, refusing her pity – are not even mentioned in The Wife. In tonal terms, Winter Sleep only truly conveys Chekhov’s spirit through what may ultimately constitute one of the film’s weakest aspects, namely a sense of world-weariness and nostalgia for a lost love and bygone era one – that most likely never existed in the first place.
Just as Dostoevsky seems far more present in this film’s spirit, with its long-winged, seemingly endless dialogues which aim at creating a philosophical realm of their own (peaking in the conversation between the husband and his sister, visiting from Istanbul—another episode which doesn’t exist in the short story), so does the Jansenist cinema of moral dilemma of Robert Bresson appear as another strong reference here. This is actually hinted at rather clearly in the film’s music, the Andantino from Schubert’s piano sonata nr 20 in A major most memorably used in one of Bresson’s indelible masterpiece, Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), in which a donkey is sacrificed, helpless yet resilient, on the altar of man’s greed and cruelty. Likewise, Winter Sleep shows the sheer failure of any attempt at human reconciliation in the face of economic disparity and long-harbored class resentment, despite the landowner’s efforts at being a kind ruler in his own ‘kingdom’. In this, the film strays significantly from the ending of Chekhov’s story, in which the husband finds not only a form of appeasement in his relationship with his wife, but also a muted happiness. As such, the film is really not so much about choice and morality, filled with a Christian belief in atonement and redemption, as it is about a form of deep-seated pessimism and fatalism—and perhaps thankfully so, as Ceylan is not a Russian, but a Turkish director (however universal in his appeal), and that there are more than one reasons to celebrate him as such.
While Winter Sleep successfully transposes entire dialogues from a Russian environment (Chekhov’s story) to a Turkish one (the film)—showing the kinship, among Russians and Turks, for passionate and protracted late-night discussions, beautifully captured in both texts—it is far less a Chekhovian nostalgia, indeed, than a form of fatalistic melancholy that we find here. And the latter is unmistakably Turkish, not Russian. Interestingly, Chekhov spent a long period of his life in Crimea, a land which historically belonged to the Tatars, close kin of the Turks, and whose presence and cultural legacy still permeates the beautiful—and recently politically troubled—peninsula. The eminently national, Turkish character has shone throughout Ceylan’s career, even more compellingly in his Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) and his early masterpiece Uzak (2002). In short, Ceylan need not the authority of Chekhov, Dostoevsky or Bresson to be a deft painter of his nation’s idiosyncrasies and soul. But his reaching out to these sources should all be taken, first and foremost, as a gesture of artistic and intellectual humility and acquiescence to high culture, rather than a vacuous and pretentious pose from this exquisite and worldly filmmaker—one of the most important auteurs working in world art cinema today.