Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme D’Or-winning drama about a hotel owner and pillar of a small Turkish community interacting and clashing with the locals, is no Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Loosely told at 3 hours 15 minutes (making it the longest Palme D’Or winner ever, fact fans), it lacks the focus of Anatolia in absence of a single-track narrative. Winter Sleep is instead a ride where you, the passenger, don’t know the destination, as it’s a journey of detours. The film is also not as cosmically captivating as Anatolia, with Ceylan choosing to locate Winter Sleep in a much more grounded (if still starkly beautiful) zone.
That gets the criticism and apparently necessary comparisons out of the way. After a director produces a modern classic, critics are often eager to address whether the follow-up meets the unfairly high expectations, regardless of whether the filmmaker’s latest is still accomplished cinema. And while Winter Sleep isn’t quite as monumental as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan casually gets by on two of his biggest strengths in his seventh film: immense honesty and the ability to draw superbly natural performances from his cast. Scenes of high drama, like extended verbal battles between our lead Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag) or young wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen), seem effortlessly done. They’re crackling back-and-forths, taking place indoors away from the howling onset of winter.
Winter Sleep‘s best sequences feature two characters pushing each other to an emotional response, resulting in an eruption of biting honesty. “I wish my threshold of self-deception was as low as yours,” Aydin spits at Necla at the beginning of a painfully protracted rebuttal to her accusations that his writing for the local newspaper is bloodless. People here want to fight – they want a reaction just to break the tedium of existence in lonely, wintry Cappadocia. Only once they’ve vented can they get back to living in the tranquility of the mountain, before it once again gives way to feelings of isolation and worthlessness.
Winter Sleep often feels like a way for Ceylan to exorcise a wide range of demons, as well as formulate a dissection of another world that’s idyllic on the surface but just as mundane as anywhere else on closer inspection. It’s a personal film that takes on the most epic of broad subjects. These include family, art, marriage, ageing and religion – set in a liberal Muslim community, Winter Sleep is a timely reminder for a misguided few that Islam can be a foundation of goodness – but none are more prominent than the subject of class. Broaching this slippery concept through Aydin and family, who possess inherited wealth, and the other occupants of the mountainside town, who struggle to afford housing and retain some semblance of happy family life in the face of poverty, Ceylan suggests that we’re born into the roles we’ll play our entire lives.
The people of Winter Sleep are physically and figuratively imprisoned in the place they were born, something inescapable made more so by the encroaching snow. Ceylan thinks that maybe we can’t truly escape what we’re born into. Even Aydin (whose name means ‘intellectual’ in Turkish), as cultured and superior as he imagines himself, is so part of this place that his hotel is literally built into the rock. He goes above and beyond to make things comfortable for guests in order to convince them of his town’s greatness, even going as far as buying a horse because a visitor expected the hotel would have one. Aydin also seeks friendship with the guests because the people closest to him – his wife, his sister, his loyal assistant/hotel manager – are distant or flat-out resentful.
We come to understand why: Aydin’s insufferable in his own way, false modesty not always covering up the underlying superciliousness and sense of entitlement as he goes about being the self-described “king of a small kingdom,” drinking with and charitably giving to the locals as well as thuggishly collecting rent from them. Ceylan could easily write Aydin off as the symbolic evil of unearned privilege, but the director’s too much of a humanist for that – he also shows the tender side of Aydin, whose unpredictability and lapses in memory could suggest the beginning of a midlife crisis, the onset of madness, or both. Each character loses our sympathies at some point, as we see these people go from their best to their worst and back.
Ceylan constantly asks us to consider whether people are shaped by their environment, and whether this can excuse some of their more unseemly traits. Is it OK for the townfolk to attack (sometimes physically) Aydin for their living a much poorer existence? Does Aydin inadvertently patronize others, for example forcing upon his wife his unwanted assistance with her beloved charity work, because he’s spent his whole life being held up as someone of importance? Nihal now all-but despises Aydin, but does his insistence on keeping her around despite knowing she doesn’t love him result from his misguided wish to keep her out of poverty? Ceylan allows redemption because he notices we’re not always to blame for, and sometimes not even aware of, the faults in character given to us through outside influence.
With environment having such a big impact on the story, it’s no wonder that a lot of Ceylan’s focus is on the look and sound of the setting. The fields and valleys of Anatolia are a gift to a cinematographer, but even better is the noise of the area created by the sound department, who make the sound of snowy desolation into art. The full orchestral sweep making up the score, by contrast, interrupts rather than enhances the action. It’s also possible that Winter Sleep‘s ending is another misstep, an abruptly hopeful reversion to narrative convenience that seeks to neatly tie things up. Or maybe some sense of uncomplicated joy after three-plus hours of conflict in deepest, darkest winter is the appropriate reward.
Sprawling, thought-provoking, lengthy, intense, frustrating and stunning. No, Winter Sleep isn't quite Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but it's still Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Palme D'Or-winning latest.