Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Opens December 19
Among the great, perhaps not entirely incidental pleasures of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s cinema are the middle-aged male faces which linger in his forbiddingly long takes—a Rushmorian array of stoic, weather-worn handsomeness, exhausted mustaches, wind-thinned hair. Haluk Bilginer, who plays Aydin, the retired actor-turned-country squire at the center of Winter Sleep, has the ragged continental hairline, charcoal eyebrows and deflated cheeks of a very late-period (and, y’know, Turkish) James Mason. A former stage star returned home to Anatolia to run a hotel and maintain his father’s property holdings, write a column for a local newspaper, and research a definitive history of Turkish theatre, Aydin is most often found in his study, where gold lamplight pools on rough stucco walls, amid piles of books, play posters and artifacts.
So dignified is the man and the room, so evocative of experience, that it may take you, like the people around Aydin, a significant chunk of the movie’s three-hour-plus runtime to glom onto the fact that he’s not remotely as smart as he thinks he is. He strikes worldly poses in conversations with diffident tourists; he pretends to loftiness when squirming through tenant disputes—but most of all, he has his pretensions eviscerated, and responds with pettiness and unconvincing equanimity, in long arguments with his divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbağ) and young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen). (Winter Sleep’s marriage, between a beautiful, callow woman throwing herself clumsily into philanthropic work and emerging from the pseudo-intellectual shadow of her jealous older husband and his uncommenced scholarly masterwork, is a quite direct echo of Middlemarch’s Dorothea Burke and Edward “Key to All Mythologies” Casaubon.)
Another deceptive appearance: despite Winter Sleep’s stately pace and desolately beautiful long-shot views of ruins, steppes and snowbound village, it’s less an exemplar of festival-circuit “slow cinema” than a writer’s movie. Tensions simmer on low over Aydin’s writing, Necla’s bitterness, Nihal’s school fundraising, and the discomfiting abjection of a local imam behind on the rent; throughout, characters parse their abstract ideas and their intimate relationships in dialogue, by Ceylan and his wife Ebru, that’s a perfect solution of insight and obviously flawed subjetivity—the Ceylans are particularly good at how people sometimes argue with a tragically misconstrued idea of their partner. The deft arrangement of scenes, with motifs from the characters’ pontifications recurring unacknowledged in actual social scenarios, also contributes to the film’s pathos and deep but mirthless humor.
All this was true as well of Ceylan‘s last film, his masterpiece to date, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but there, the poignantly human-sized drama was counterpointed by the grave backdrop of a criminal investigation, lyrical road-movie exteriors, and desperate comedy. Here, the drama is levelled out, despite sharpening stabs of meaning-freighted natural imagery, emotional violence, and well-timed country-life slapstick as Aydin and Nihal approach something like a reckoning with their own illusions. Since Cannes, where Winter Sleep took top honors, Chekhov has been an operative comparison—for the stasis-bound, self-deluded characters, the landowner-peasant tension, and animals symbolic of human spirits and dissolving rural traditions. And indeed, talky, slow-fused, and largely interior, Winter Sleep does feel close to a play—but, never quite inert, it manages better offstage than Aydin. Mark Asch