Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has by now been more than accepted into the "mainstream" of modern global auteur cinema. The Palme d'Or awarded at Cannes 2014 to Winter Sleep is proof of his "canonization" as a "great filmmaker", something that the stateliness of his (probably far too much) self-conscious cinema seems to underline. This lengthy exploration of an Anatolian rural landowner's life, radiating outwards to take in those around him, is loosely based on short stories by Anton Chekhov (as, indeed, his previous quasi-masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) and unfolds at a slow, magisterial pace over more than three hours.
And yet, that sense that Mr. Ceylan has become "untouchable" and that we're in for another earnest arthouse slog completely falls by the wayside as you notice the vibrancy, exquisite control and expansiveness of Winter Sleep. In fact, you could very easily see the film as an oblique comment on the director's own recent unanimity: its "hero", Aydin (a remarkable Haluk Bilginer) is a former actor who retired to take over running the family's properties, but is also someone who simultaneously chafes at and revels in his state - as indeed most everyone in this enveloping, quietly dramatic look at love and regret, individuality and society, morals and politics.
The setting is the Hotel Othello, a quaint hotel carved into the Anatolian rock, a cave where Aydin (and, to an extent, everyone around him) hides from the world, coming out every now and then to make sure it conforms to the idea he makes of it. Aydin is an insufferable, insecure character, who uses rhetoric and performance to mask his pettiness and self-doubt and also to reflect it back on his suffering young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), their wedding a facade fraying at the edges and threatening to implode in the snowy, wintry landscapes breathtakingly shot by Mr. Ceylan's regular DP Gökhan Tiryaki.
Unfolding slowly but grippingly through a series of "socratic dialogues" that reflect social protocols while seeming to be carved out of jagged rock, Winter Sleep follows Aydin and the pack of wounded animals in his direct dependence as they lash out at each other in despair. Nihal takes refuge in charity work to make up for her sense of being a trophy wife; Aydin's bitter sister Necla (Demet Akbağ) resents being second fiddle; Ismail (Nejat İşler), the impulsive, proud out-of-work tenant whose back-owed rents start the plot rolling, and his brother, strict muslim imam Hamdi (Serhan Kılıç), are studies in different forms of dignity; Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), the right-hand man, pretty much runs the place while Aydin whiles away his days thinking and writing self-important. Nearly all of them yearn for a way out of their self-imposed, self-inflicted troubles, their passive-aggressive tensions seething as the tale inches forward - occasionally a bit self-aware, not unreasonably ponderous, but transcended by a pitch- and note-perfect combination of writing, handling, performance and technique.
What is even more extraordinary in Winter Sleep is how the film's apparent simplicity "contains multitudes" - simultaneously epic and intimate, it touches upon modern Turkey's secular/religious divide but also the current rich/poor class divide felt all over the world, and asks where exactly is the virtue, what is pride good for if it leads you in a wrong direction, what is the meaning of love. All the world is a stage for Mr. Ceylan, and no wonder that the film's hotel is Shakespeareanly called Othello. If Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a quasi-masterpiece, then Winter Sleep is even closer to the concept.
Turkey, France, Germany 2014
Cast Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbağ, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Kılıç, Nejat İşler
Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan; screenwriters Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan; cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki (colour, widescreen); designer Gamze Kuş; editors Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Bora Gökşingöl; producer Zeynep Özbatur Atakan; production companies Zeyno Film, Memento Films Productions and Bredok Film Production in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, Mars Entertainment Group and Imaj
Screened December 23rd 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)
WINTER SLEEP - trailer from Memento Films International on Vimeo.