Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014)

A scene from Nuri Bilge Ceylan's  Winter Sleep  {Photo: ADOPT FILMS}

A scene from Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep {Photo: ADOPT FILMS}

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a breakthrough for the director. Since his 1997 debut, Kasaba, Ceylan has maintained a steady profile, slowly accumulating the accolades associated with some of the most prolific and world-renowned directors. It’s been a long time coming as the director was able to translate his consistency into a Palme d’Or victory for Winter Sleep. It’s a worthy victor. Coming from someone who found Anatolia’s deliberate pacing cumbersome, Winter Sleep is a pleasant and warm surprise.

The film depicts the life of a retired actor turned hotel owner in Anatolia. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) initially keeps his vanity closeted. He greets his guests with courteous regard and often retreats to his study to work on his opinionated blog - mostly aimed to discuss the social and economic construction of his town. Yet things come to a screeching halt when a young boy throws a rock at Aydin’s car, shattering the glass and prompting his assistant, who was driving the car, to take the boy to his father. The boy’s father rents a home from Aydin and is late on his payment - the boy’s action a response to the previous night’s debt collection. The father, out of job and drunk, is far more confrontational than expected, prompting Aydin to make a speedy retreat.

The film is a deconstruction of Aydin. Like Juliette Binoche’s character in Clouds of Sils Maria, this is a character study that asks its subjects to question their frailty and come to grip with it. But with Aydin, he is unwilling to admit weakness. Aydin is the sort of character who will admit to a degree of narcissism, only because he deems everyone as narcissistic, thereby validating his behavior. He often dispels the thoughts of his wife and sister on the basis of his own more refined intellectual and moral superiority. In a crucial scene, Aydin wears down his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) to the point that she submits to his whim - he’s looking to interfere in her nonprofit organization, a project that she took on to have her own sense of agency. By making claims that he will run the organization far more efficiently than she could, he’s essentially elevating his own status while denouncing her - all in the name of charity. He certainly may be able to assist her, but what’s more important is the fact that Nihal holds onto the project for her own sanity, struggling to maintain her identity when confined to the cold and distancing hotel.  

Yet Aydin isn’t conventionally antagonistic. He utilizes his intellect in a manner that’s distancing, but he’s no more different from any number of Woody Allen proxies. He is a man of considerable anxieties and clearly living with the fact that his career forces him to reside in his study, examining a cold and cruel world. Nihal’s femininity is utilized as the branch of humanism that he lacks, but that branch is severed in a scene involving the aforementioned tenants.

Much of the conversation regarding Winter Sleep, at least at the screening I attended, involved its length:  it’s over three hours. This is a film that largely consists of wall-to-wall dialogue, set alongside chilly gray interiors and snowy reservoirs. “Glacially-paced”, a term used by many contemporary critics to describe Ceylan’s film, seems like a misleading way of describing the film’s movements. It is cold in the same manner that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is hot. The temperature of the film has no bearing on the passion that the film evokes. We’re talking about extremes - this is a film of grand emotional fervor that serves as the kindle against the picture’s icy environment. Brevity may not be Ceylan’s strong suit, but Winter Sleep certainly makes the most of its time.