Rabidly engrossing, ravishingly beautiful, and rich in details – a rock breaks a window, a child kisses a hand, a horse is dragged from a stream – Winter Sleep is a hibernative story of unbridled arrogance; a grand tragedy about life in the Ivory Tower; and a finely observed portrait of collapsing social contracts, public and private. It’s a beautiful, intently serious delve into a crumbling marriage teetering on a mountaintop.
Doom and foreboding gather, over long Turkish-speaking hours, around the head of a hotel owner and landlord in remotest Cappadocia, land of cave dwellings. Scenes of talk or quarrel unspool between him and his wife and visiting sister; he has a feud with one of his tenants. Benevolent, selfish, and judgmental, he experiences a slow-dawning realization that his chest-thumping view of himself as an alpha male has deprived him of love and affection. Over the course of a long winter in these Anatolian steppes, it snows. It sounds like the perfect nightmare art film.
Proud of his status as the ruler of this petty fiefdom, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) – a monstrous personality thickly coated in self-justification and self-delusion – spends his days schmoozing with guests, dealing with complaints, and researching a book on the history of Turkish theatre, while finding time to heap endless condescension upon his young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen). Yet at every moment, Bilginer makes it painfully clear that Aydin, even as he relentlessly steamrolls over people, believes himself to be a mensch, misunderstood and unappreciated by those around him.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) has made another testing marathon about human beings marooned in humanity. Ceylan spins gold in thought and image with his epic Cannes Palme d’Or-winner, a morality tale of a wealthy man who sins by omission. It’s a rigorous, robust, challenging experience that Ceylan’s been building toward with his previous features, as well as an adventurous step above them. The plot grows steadily over many extensive conversations, and the hotel’s inhabitants are ensconced in their own isolation.
Formidably achieved, exquisitely nuanced, and intellectually substantial, Winter Sleep is superlative filmmaking, with searing insight and remorseless length. Each shot glows like a symbol; each digression is almost a short story in itself. Dripping with black humour, this is precise formalism, stitched together with wit and self-aware theatricality. The extensive running time is used, once again, to novelistic effect, humanizing its multifarious main character, revealing his ridiculous tendencies and the conservative, entrenched malevolence that fuels his actions.
Ceylan’s gift for making interesting stories out of predetermined plots, locating small eddies of change in the midst of eternally fixed dynamics, is unparalleled. In Winter Sleep, nothing happens, and yet everything happens. Everyone is goaded mentally to remould his or her existence. Apocalypse hovers stubbornly in the story’s eaves.
Being in Aydin’s hotel glowing with antique light and filamented with love and hate is like being trapped in a lightbulb before it blows, or in Plato’s cave, unsure if you’re an original or a shadow-replica. Winter Sleep is not an easy watch, but it is lyrical and full of unpalatable truths. At the very least, it qualifies as the least boring 196-minute film ever made; at most, it’s a near masterpiece.