As the temperatures start to rise and the snow begins to melt in the Midwest, a film titled after the dreaded season we’ve just escaped might not arouse the interest of the masses. What’s more, when the film’s characters are just as cold and sluggish as the weather surrounding them, it may not keep one emotionally invested for too long. But if you opt for trudging out of hibernation and braving the cinematic weather, you might find some reward amongst the barren tundra that is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s award-winning “Winter Sleep.”
Settled within the Central Anatolian region of rural Turkey, the retired theatre actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) lives a prosperous life overseeing his resort hotel as well as collecting funds off of his properties in the surrounding villages. After making sure his guests are satisfied, he retires to his studies to write an opinions column for his local newspaper while also conducting research for his book on Turkish theatre. He considers himself to be very well off, a very intelligent and successful man.
As winter settles in and the number of guests dwindle, Aydin finds the only company to be his sister Necla (Demet Akbağ), his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), his loyal employees Hidayet and Fatma (Ayberk Pekcan and Rabia Özel, respectively), and the occasional visiting tenets of his from the village. Thinking he is surrounded by friends, Aydin soon realizes that his relationships with them are more frayed than he initially thought–and what’s more, he’s the reason for their collective tension. Aydin resorts to solitude as the frigid weeks drag on, coming to terms with his own sense of superiority while also trying to maintain his fading dignity.
Winter Sleep, the eighth film from Turkish director Ceylan, took home the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, following the director’s Grand Prix wins for “Distant” (2002) and “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011) and Best Director win for “Three Monkeys” (2008) at previous Festivals. As many film publications have noted it was the longest film in competition at last year’s festival, which, at a total of 196 minutes, is both a testament to Ceylan’s scope and dedication but also a gamble on the audience’s endurance.
“Winter Sleep” is an incredibly lengthy character study on self-righteousness and honesty. Ceylan depicts Aydin as an aged man who craves a sense of importance in his already privileged life, which creates dysfunctional relationships as a result. Through Bilginer’s subtle performance we come to see that Aydin is trapped in many dichotomies of his own accord. As Nihal points out in her pivotal argument with Aydin, he seems to take both sides in debated topics so as to achieve some sort of moral upper hand, but in the end he only ends up distancing himself from both sides and ending up in the psychological void. Mirrored by the symbolic lack of close-ups and the incredibly wide shots with shallow depths of field, we see that Aydin is a desperate egotist who continuously feels the need to assert his own sense of control.
It isn’t to say that the other characters are flawless, either. Nihal tries to establish herself as a self-aware bourgeois by setting up fundraisers for underprivileged schoolchildren, but is really doing it to ease her own troubled conscience than out of a sense of altruism. Necla thinks of herself as a more mature adult for having endured past abuse, but refuses to listen to others who think her “necessary to resist evil” mantra as a way of casting the ultimate guilt to evildoers is problematic (at best). Even Hamdi hodja (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), a local imam and longtime tenet of one of Aydin’s properties, tries to play himself off as a respectable and forgiving man, but in reality is only kissing up for his own personal gains.
In a sense, “Winter Sleep’s” themes of honesty (or lack thereof) are tied in to Aydin’s former profession, acting. Every character is putting on a performance to appear more profound to their peers, regardless of whether or not that actually reflects their true emotions.
But even with all of the film’s gems hidden amongst its nuances and subtleties, it’s still a tedious watch. Ceylan grounds the narrative in realism, possibly to its own detriment. Scenes of arguments span upwards of fifteen minutes long, and though they unwind in entrancingly passive-aggressive fashion instead of Hollywood-like melodramatic screaming matches, they utilize dialogue that becomes too heavy-handed as they morph from one criticism to another, so quickly in fact, that by the time they’re finished it takes a while to recollect what the characters were even talking about in the first place. The same can be applied to the film as a whole, there is so much that Ceylan wants to say about humanity, but its pacing and intellectual deconstruction may be better suited for literature rather than cinema.
But just as thick novels reward the patient readers who sit through their entirety, so does “Winter Sleep” reward those viewers who are eager enough to endure its brevity.