Bundle up and walk, don't run, to Winter Sleep, if you possibly can. This is a mid-January film that offers little escape from the chill but lots of enrichment over its unhurried 196-minute running time. Think of it as dramatic slow-cooking where the ingredients take their time to come together.
This carefully composed drama from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes last May, is simultaneously strange and familiar. The strange part is the setting, in the chilly mountain desert of Cappadocia in the Anatolian steppes, a fairy tale landscape of grey and yellow boulders, cones, pillars and mushroom-shaped rocks, where, in the winter, snakes of mist curl around the ground and herds of wild ponies thunder across the land. That's where we first see the protagonist Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) picking mushrooms at dawn.
Soon, we discover something very familiar going on here: a provincial family, riven by yearning, frustration and self-deception. The adjective "Chekhovian" is entirely appropriate: Ceylan's Winter repurposes parts of two Anton Chekhov stories, Excellent People, about a literary critic and his doctor-sister living together, and The Wife, about an older man and his younger, philanthropic spouse, and shapes them into his own story.
Ceylan's script, co-written with his wife, Ebru Ceylan, puts the middle-aged husband, wife and sister together under one unusual roof, in a cave hotel that they operate. Chekhov's themes of moral weakness and the otherwordly landscape, exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, make for a potent juxtaposition: Look at this world and marvel, and marvel again at why people mess things up so badly.
Aydin is a retired stage actor who has returned to his home village and family business, which includes, as well as the hotel, renting out several village homes.
He has a grey beard and longish hair, and fancies himself something of a sage, who "needs only my books and my office." He writes a paternalistic column on art and morals for the local newspaper, Voice of the Steppes, while accumulating research for a proposed book on the history of Turkish theatre. What has happened to his marriage we don't exactly know, but his younger, urbane wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen), lives in a separate part of the house – the marriage has simmered down to the level of a ceasefire. A more recent guest is Aydin's cynical sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), co-heir to the family fortune, who is recovering from a failed marriage.
A small incident triggers a series of bigger events: A hotel guest, a motorcycle-riding free-spirited travel writer, wants to know where the wild ponies are that he saw on the hotel's website. That inspires Aydin, in the interests of authenticity, to capture one of the animals, and hires his driver and property manager (Ayberk Pekcan) to do so. After making a deal for a horse, they drive off in Aydin's Land Rover and while they're discussing the problems with delinquent tenants, a hurled rock smashes the driver's side window.
The culprit is a boy, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), who has grown up hating his landlord, namely Aydin. As we discover, the bailiff has already confiscated the family's television and refrigerator. The two men grab the boy and deliver him to his parents' shabby home, where the angry father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), confronts them and accuses them of deliberately humiliating him. The boy's shy uncle, Hamdi (Serhat Kilic), a teacher, promises to pay for the window and begs their forgiveness, walking 10 kilometres through a muddy valley, twice, to visit the landlord.
Aydin, barely disguising his discomfort, tries to play the benign patriarch – there's a painfully awkward scene in which he holds his hand out while the uncle urges the boy to kiss his benefactor's hand. But Aydin's behaviour only serves to deepen the contempt his wife and sister already feel for him. Initially their feelings are expressed only in loaded glances, and then, long scenes of dialogue. In a pivotal scene, Aydin is sitting at his desk, typing his latest column into his MacBook, while his sister, Necla, leafing through a magazine, sits behind him on a sofa. She begins by discussing one of her brother's columns, on the relationship of cleanliness and godliness (he found the tenants' home quite dirty). It progresses quickly into a discussion of his entire hypocritical value system.
"I wish," she says, "my threshold of self-deception was as low as yours."
In response to his sister's attack, Aydin turns to his wife, or more accurately, turns on her. With no other outlets for her energy and passions, she busies herself raising money for local charities. When Aydin decides to step in to "help" by taking over the project, they both recognize he's deliberately intruding on her last area of autonomy.
It's in these perfectly calibrated scenes inside the hotel that Winter Sleep ignites, exposing a world of intimate enmity that recalls the domestic dramas of Ingmar Bergman. Bilginer, a veteran Turkish actor with a few roles in English-language movies (Ishtar), is remarkably good at conveying the character's complex of contradictions: He's both an obnoxious blowhard and a charmer, with a nervous derisive laugh that betrays his vanity. Yet he's so compulsive about spoiling everyone's happiness, including his own, that you can't help but pity him.
In its third hour, Winter Sleep shifts and broadens its perspective: Aydin decides, with a show of sacrifice, that he'll head off to Istanbul for a while and leave his wife alone. But he's waylaid by bad weather and ends up at a drinking party with a farmer friend. Meanwhile, Nihal, also determined to do a good deed, sets out to visit the home of the boy who threw the rock, and is received with considerable less gratitude than she hoped. Yes, startling events happen and small epiphanies occur, but Winter Sleep is not about inspiring lessons and tidy resolutions. Faithful to Chekhov, Ceylan spells out nothing except that unhappiness unrecognized is unhappiness compounded, and despite the film's wintry chill, there's a thrilling warmth in this struggle to shine a light on life.