Simply put, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a badass. His new 3.25-hour film “Winter Sleep” doesn’t unfold so much as unspool, and despite presenting a few challenges to jet-lagged journalists, it manages not only to sustain interest but to mesmerize. After seeing Mike Leigh’s terrific “Mr. Turner,” it was hard to imagine that film being nudged into the shadows, but “Winter Sleep” manages to do it. Ceylan is a longtime Cannes favorite and there is much talk of this being his year; indeed it’s hard to imagine a Jane Campion-led jury not awarding it something significant, if not the Palme d’Or.
Ceylan, who is an accomplished still photographer as well, says that "L’Avventura" is one of his favorite films, and you can see that great work in this one, set in and around a remote tourist hotel in Anatolia. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is the hotel’s wealthy proprietor, a local aristocrat, a former actor in Istanbul who didn’t make it as big as expected and returned to manage his father’s land and businesses. He also returned with the trappings of his career, a young beautiful wife, Nihal (Melissa Sözen), but at the film’s beginning it is not clear at all that she is his wife, and indeed they live much apart – physically as well as emotionally. The hotel is also home to Aydin’s sister Necla (Demet Akbag), separated from her husband and regretting it in her solitude, as well as a few tourists who come for just that.
As the film begins, Aydin and his major domo, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), are driving through the countryside when a stone suddenly shatters the side window on Aydin’s Land Rover. Hidayet runs after and catches the culprit, who turns out to be the young son and nephew of long-time tenants behind in their rent. When they return the boy to his home, Hidayet gets into a confrontation with the father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), a hot-head recently released from prison who is stopped by his brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), a local imam. As Aydin watches from the Land Rover, the local issues come subtly to light: Aydin’s debt collectors have taken the family’s TV and saleable goods, and in the process Ismail had been beaten, humiliated; the boy was exacting the only revenge he could think of. Although it made total sense for Aydin and Hidayet to bring the boy home – in his attempt to escape he had fallen into a creek, and they feared he would become ill in the cold – their presence and telling of the broken window has further humiliated the family. Aydin, who Hidayet thinks too soft, is stuck in the middle, both too soft and too hard. It’s a no-win situation at the center of the film -- pride, and male pride in particular, and the distances between people – and will recur throughout, a slight yet potent nightmare.
It isn’t just issues between strangers, differences of opinion and perspective, that haunt “Winter Sleep”: Aydin argues with Neclat, or vice-versa; Neclat confides in Nihal but doesn’t appreciate her response; Aydin and Nihal, having reached a quiet peace, break out of it. The arguments go on at length, and they are not exactly kind. With all due respect to Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy of the “Sunset” series, whose dialogue receives applause but to me often rings pretentious and false, Ceylan and his co-writer (and wife) Ebru Ceylan are amazingly on point; their dialogue not only rings true but has a drug-like effect on the viewer, inducing you in.
That these personal issues may well represent larger issues in today’s Turkey and beyond goes without saying. But in the end, “Winter Sleep” is perhaps simply a not-so-simple love story between two people still looking for themselves, and their ability to be together. And what does that being together mean, anyway? For Nihal, it’s necessary to be able simply to breathe beneath, or aside, or near Aydin, who despite giving her a lot of space, both physically and emotionally, doesn’t know how to be anything but self-servingly oppressive; it’s in his blood. The native American writer Sherman Alexie tweeted this week to the effect that one can be liberal and non-racist and still be an asshole. Indeed, as Nihal points out, Aydin uses his finer qualities – honesty and morality, work ethic and conscientiousness, to look down on and criticize others. (Not that he is wrong.) Played by Buligner with great, great presence, Aydin is fascinating, romantic and pretty much impossible. (Not that she wants to leave him.) Near the end of the film, I found myself tearing up at Nihal’s frustration and misery, an amazing moment not possible without the previous two and a half hours, and a great credit to Ceylan and his actors, especially the soulfull Sozen.
The film has one false note, or at least one that stands out: when Aydin is away, Nihal visits the home of the tenant family. While the intent feels right, certain aspects – she goes alone at night, highly unusual, and is left alone with the hotheaded Ismail, who has an absurdly smart bit of dialogue – smack of screenwriterly conceits. It was a twist that needed to happen – it’s only through Nihal’s visit that we learn why Hamdi’s family is behind in the rent, facts that Aydin and his agent/lawyers from their great distance on high never bothered to learn – but I wish the Ceylans had figured out a more elegant solution. That said, perhaps they intended this discomfort and unbelievability, for in the process the naive, overreaching Nihal learns a sad lesson, one that Aydin had more or less warned her of. In the meantime, the judgmental Aydin learns his own lesson – that he can, on occasion, actually be wrong about people.
I said there was only one false note. There are also a couple of bits with wild animals that might be put into the category of Over- and Unnecessarily Symbolic, but they also have their charm. “Winter Sleep” is beautiful to look at (Gökhan Tiryaki is the cinematographer but let’s assume a close collaboration) and to listen to, wonderfully acted and fully engrossing.