Directed by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Written by: Ebru Ceylan & Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Starring: Haluk Bilginer (Aydin), Melisa Sözen (Nihal), Demet Akbag (Necla), Ayberk Pekcan (Hidayet), Serhat Mustafa Kiliç (Hamdi), Nejat Isler (Ismail), Tamer Levent (Suavi), Nadir Saribacak (Levent), Emirhan Doruktutan (Ilyas), Ekrem Ilhan (Ekrem), Rabia Özel (Fatma), Fatma Deniz Yildiz (Sevda), Mehmet Ali Nuroglu (Timur).
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a director who takes his time. His last film was the brilliant Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which ran nearly two hours and forty minutes, and was about a group of men – cops, a prosecutor, a doctor and a murderer, searching the barren but strangely beautiful countryside for a dead body- that even the man who killed him doesn’t quite remember where he put it. That film was a crime movie, but not a whodunit – we knew who from the beginning, but a whydunit – and one whose mystery deepens even in the final scene. In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the closer the characters looked, they less they understood. His newest film is Winter Sleep – which runs three hours and twenty minutes, much of it pure talk, and yet the film never feels overly long. It is a much different film than Once a Time in Anatolia – the portrait of an upper class man – a former actor, now a hotel proprietor named Aydin (Haluk Bilginer). He owns a beautiful mountainside hotel, and much of the houses in the surrounding towns. He believes himself to be a smart, cultured kind man – he believes everyone admires him – and is interested in what he has to say. His position in the community has afforded him a weekly newspaper column, where he holds court on whatever is bothering him that week – which he basically uses to lectures everyone else. But as much as Aydin believes he is admired, he is really hated by most – and for good reason. He’s an asshole – and it takes him until the end of the movie to fully realize this (if he ever does – which is arguable).
The movie’s inciting incident comes early, when Aydin and his employee Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) – who basically acts as Aydin’s muscle, playing the heavy to the tenants who don’t pay on time. They happen to be near the school when it is getting out for the day – and Aydin sees a young boy, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), glaring at him. Not long after, while driving down the street, a rock comes hurtling at the car, and breaks the shatters the passenger window. Hidayet chases down Ilyas, and the pair takes him back home – and it quickly becomes apparent why Ilyas has done what he has done. His father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), has recently been released from jail, and hasn’t found work yet. The whole family is being supported by Ismail’s brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), a local Imam – and they are behind on the rent. The family was humiliated when a collection agency showed up on their doorstep – and took some of their possessions as payment, even after the family was assured that they would have more time. As with everything else in the movie, Aydin deflects blame for this – he doesn’t like confrontation, and lets Hidayet handle it. Later, when Hamdi comes to see Aydin personally, Aydin will once again deflect blame – he lets Hidayet and his lawyers handle this, don’t come see him again, etc. Hamdi has to be polite to Aydin – after all, he owes him money – but he clearly hates him as much as his brother and nephew do – he’s just more political about it than they are.
Aydin’s family doesn’t have to pretend to like him – although they mainly do, until the film’s middle hour. This is when two of the longest conversations in cinema history take place – the first between Aydin and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), which starts civilly enough, until the pair are basically hurling insults at each other. Necla questions why Aydin is writing his articles – saying that she would be embarrassed to write about things that she knew nothing about. From there, things devolve quickly. The second conversation is between Aydin and his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), as he belittles her, speaks to her like a child, and wants to take control of the one thing in her life that brings her any joy – any sense of freedom from him that she has. She responds, not unlike a child, with tears.
These two conversations takes up probably about an hour of running time (and a little over when you add a third, not quite as long, conversation between the two women – once again it starts civilly enough, before devolving). For much of these conversations, Ceylon keeps the camera still, and doesn’t cut for minutes on end. It is a showcase for the writing and acting – all of which is brilliant. Bilginer in particular delivers one of the best performances of the year, as he slowly strips away the layers of his character – a petty, condescending man. We learn that while he had a 25 year career as an actor, he wasn’t a particularly good one – he didn’t get all this property because he himself is a success, but because he inherited it. The film is clearly an allegory – for Turkey specifically, but has universal resonance about how the upper class often think they know what is best for everyone "beneath" them, when really they are clueless to what they are really going through.
But the film is above all a character study of Aydin, and it works brilliantly as that. The long conversations take up probably half the running time, but the rest is something much more visual, subtly showing us the man in his surrounding, and how they reflect on each other. The ending of the film perhaps shows us that Aydin has, at the very least, realized what as asshole he is – as he reaches out to try and fix his marriage. But at the same time, I'm not overly convinced he does realize it – or if he is, like his wife has accused of, simply playing another role.
Yes, Winter Sleep is a long film – which for many will seem daunting. I’m not sure when everyone decided that any film that runs over two hours was too long, but that seems to be the case. Winter Sleep earns its running time – and it never feels that long. The movie cannot be described as fast moving – but it is never less than engrossing. The film is a combination of the epic and the intimate. Yes, it is a long film, but it also perhaps Ceylon's most accessible film to date – there is a simplicity to it that works in its favor, and makes it all the more profound. This is one of the year’s best.