That Winter Sleep won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year shocked no one. The real surprise is that it’s taken this long for one of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films to walk away with the top prize. He’s picked up just about everything else including the Grand Jury Prize twice (Distant in 2002 and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia in 2011). Set on the Anatolian steppes, his latest is a thoughtful, challenging work that asks a lot and gives even more in return.
The film centres on former actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) who runs a mountaintop hotel with his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Before anything else, it’s the Turkish countryside that jumps out, picking up where Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s late night hunt for a dead body left off. Views from the hotel are stunning while many of the buildings seem incredibly to be cut straight into rock. It’s easy to see why someone might want to holiday here, Ceylan’s measured camera movements capturing the lonely splendour of abandoned countryside. Like his previous work, this outward beauty masks inner turmoil as Aydin and his acquaintances grapple with a number of themes from isolation to self-deception and the divides in Turkish society.
In a bottled up performance that captures his tormented inner-self, Bilginer establishes Aydin as an emotionally manipulative, patronising game player who shies away from conflict when he feels he can’t dominate. There are moments of clarity when he’s able to see who he really is, but these are few and far between, Aydin instead content to stand by the side refusing to take risks and participate in life. His wife is similarly inactive; an observer and a critiquer captured with pained passivity by Sözen. Their relationship is the most fascinating one but half a dozen others are almost as captivating.
Fascinating as it might be, don’t come expecting fireworks, at least not of the immediate kind. Inaction looks like the default state. Aside from the odd moment – a stone thrown at a car window – nothing appears to happen. Look deeper though and that inaction fades away revealing a complex examination of the nature of human interaction. Much of this occurs through what essentially amount to extended fireside chats. Often in Aydin’s study, in-depth conversations are mounted. Playing out with dry wit and clever insight, Ceylan lets them conclude when the time feels right.
Amongst the many themes explored this way, it’s a sense of remoteness and isolation that comes through strongest. Aydin cuts himself off, refusing opportunities that come his way. He writes a weekly newspaper column but only for a small local publication that goes largely unread. He won’t contemplate trying to find a bigger audience. When the chance comes to do something helpful for the local community, he briefly considers a written request before casting it aside. Everyone else appears to suffer from the same confliction. His wife barely engages with the family while his sister lives in her unhappily married past. Often shooting through doorways and window frames, Ceylan gives the impression of lives lived permanently on the outside.
This is only one of many ideas he tackles though. The running time is certainly an endurance test, surging comfortably past the three hour mark, yet with so much packed in it’s easy to see why. It does feel too long but not in the conventional way. There’s no end point at which everything after becomes superfluous. Instead, vital scenes keep coming right until the credits role. Perhaps cuts could have been made but then the carefully nurtured balance in the film might have been lost. There are rich rewards provided you have the patience to reach them. Winter Sleep is frustrating and beguiling; intimate and broad. It’s clever, complex cinema that knows where it wants to go and how to guide others there. To achieve this it demands full participation from the audience. Make sure you give it.