“I’ve never had a spare second to be bored,” exclaims Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), the protagonist of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s dauntingly titled, 197-minute long Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep. It’s a sentiment mirroring what one feels about the gargantuan and wordy film, which breezes through its running time without a sluggish moment. The Turkish master’s lush and absorbing latest work is complex and has no easy resolutions, but its multifaceted study of the Turkish society through the prism of its protagonist is richly rewarding.
Aydin is a former actor and current owner of a hotel compound and several other properties on the Anatolian steppe – Ceylan thus returns to the same geographic turf as his last film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aydin passes his days by writing think pieces for a local publication, while his right-hand man, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), takes care of the business side of things: collecting rents, running the hotel’s errands, and occasionally roughing up anyone whose payments are running behind schedule. Two women live with Aydin: his divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), and his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sӧzen). Aydin doesn’t spare either of them any of his holier-than-thou, snobby attitude, projecting onto the former his own insecurities and categorically accusing the latter of not knowing the ways of life and condescending to her regarding her financial affairs.
Having mostly locked himself up within the confines of his estate but for semi-regular visits from a friend, Aydin seems so closed off from the rest of the world that his ideas border on delusion. He’s an intellectual whose insistence on devoting an article to the shabbiness of the local imam suggests something about his character, especially as it is juxtaposed to the dire living conditions of his tenants in the nearby neighborhoods. Class division is a major theme of the film, and one that, unlike everything else being argued and philosophized by Aydin and his entourage, is more subtly suggested in the events on screen. Not that Aydin’s disdain for everyone beneath him is concealed at all, even when he’s alone in his study room.
The architecture of this room, and more generally the hotel, looks like a natural extension of the muddy scenery of the surroundings, albeit decorated to perfection with minimal furniture, exotic sculptures, and an abundance of books. Ceylan and regular cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki replicate the grandeur of the Anatolian steppes in their interior shots, creating horizontal frames replete with details that speak volumes about each character and their relationships with one another. Some of these ideas are regrettably verbalized when images would have sufficed. Aydin complains to Necla, for example, that her quietly sitting behind him is an obstacle to his intellectual stimulation when he writes, something that Necla’s understated facial expressions and the arguments between the two already make abundantly clear. Yet, most often, the film’s verbose nature is a complement to the images on screen in ways that feel neither redundant nor repetitive. This is a surprisingly entertaining film.
Winter Sleep is primarily a character study, an idea visualized in the opening sequence with a literal zoom into Aydin’s head. Yet, through a structure that is composed of several extended conversations between him and other characters, Ceylan offers a cross-section of the Turkish society that contextualizes Aydin’s political leanings and his personality. This is as much about gender politics in a predominantly religious society as it is about that society’s struggle to confront traditionalism with modernity. The film’s observations on unbearable masculine egotism are as captivating to watch as the unraveling of Ceylan’s literary and theatrical influences. In a career trajectory that has continually taken him in the direction of more expansive, audacious cinema, this is the filmmaker’s most daring and aesthetically ambitious project yet. It is something of a culmination of thematic interests that have been developing since Distant and Climates, making it all the more intriguing to see where his career goes next.