Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep opens on the smoldering aftermath of a brushfire, gray smoke rising off the charred earth as the wind blows and birds coo in the background. It’s a serene and beautiful image, and knowing Ceylan, one expects it to linger a while, considering his obsession with long, static takes. But after a few seconds, before we’ve really had a chance to ponder what he’s showing us, he cuts to a different image, a wide shot of man standing on a rocky path. We hear the same birds, and the wind is still blowing, but the images feel like they belong to different worlds, if only because their respective subjects — the smoke in the first, the man in the second — are of decidedly disparate makeups. But they coexist, and the mystery of their connection, as conceived in the director’s use of montage, becomes central to the film. Indeed, over the course of this three-hour drama, Ceylan treats us to the diversity of this decidedly hermetic universe, a varied mosaic of disparate elements, tones, textures, and emotions bouncing around a hyper-realistic space.
Winter Sleep is a claustrophobic film, transpiring mostly indoors as a brutal winter bears down on the Turkish countryside, and the cloistered characters seem all too eager to tear one another down, if only for more emotional space. Echoes of Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky resound all over the action, but the most obvious forbearer is Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.” Ceylan tells the story of a former actor, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who yearns for the glamour of his past lifestyle while owning a tourist-friendly bed and breakfast in the beautiful but remote Cappadocia Mountains. He descended from the local landowners and controls most of the surrounding area, acting as landlord to various village folk, and though he appears benevolent and approachable, he harbors animosity for his tenants and uses his foreman like a personal mob enforcer, bullying them into payments and personal favors.
Winter Sleep is a sweepingly ambitious film that explores concepts of the male ego and patriarchal classism; it’s also, in effect, a character study, though certainly not an insular one. In fact, Ceylan’s epic, novelistic aims take a great step forward after his excellent Once Upon a Time in Anatolia by further demonstrating the dramatic interlocking of characters, story, and setting. The director casts a wide net, encompassing an impressive range of circular debates between his protagonist, his family, and other characters, forming macro-level ideas about the ways powerful people exercise control and manage their egos while simultaneously honoring the personalities and emotions at hand. The film’s central conflict begins as an isolated incident — a kid from an insolvent family throws a rock through the window of Aydin’s Jeep — only to expand exponentially as more people are brought in. When Aydin’s wife Nihal (Melisa Søzen) tries to give his poor hodja uncle, Hamdi (Serhat Kilic) some cash, his father Ismail (Nejat Isler) burns the money. This, of course, enrages Hamdi, turning brother against brother, while Aydin, whose marriage to Nihal is fractured, feels betrayed by his wife.
A sort of Russian-doll scenario develops…a marvelous display of narrative ingenuity that informs Ceylan’s visual prowess.
A sort of Russian-doll scenario develops from there, a marvelous display of narrative ingenuity that informs Ceylan’s visual prowess. The story may take place in the same general location, but it nevertheless feels impossibly sprawling thanks to the director’s generously wide framing, consistently beautiful whether it captures picturesque landscapes or intimate conversations in cave-like, candlelit rooms. There’s a dramatic interplay between interior and exterior settings: After spending so much time isolated indoors with these characters, we yearn for the outside, but when we make it outside, its sheer vastness is overpowering, and suddenly we’re itching for those enclosed spaces. This feeling is reflected in the profoundly paradoxical characters as well: They seem to not know what they truly want in life even as they make important, irrevocable decisions, resulting in a Dostoevskian tension.
The one drawback to Winter Sleep — and any film that aspires to such rigor, really — is the somewhat oppressive air that arises when every aesthetic decision is diagrammed with such precision and predetermination. Ceylan has no interest in improvisation or spontaneity — his tightly wound script, which he cowrote with wife Ebru, simply doesn’t allow for any — and this lack of invention is sometimes stifling. Winter Sleep may sometimes seem aestheticized to the point of being unimaginative, but thankfully the characters, our gateway to both the film’s world and the director’s style, are never fixed to any one track. Ceylan has not laid bare their fate, and the sense their lives could lead any direction at any moment is a liberating factor, and an important aspect of the director’s technique. Sure, the same applies to his other work — the complicated relationship at the center of his film Climates, a similar if more rudimentary exercise in toxic egos, follows a similar trajectory, and isn’t fully elucidated until the final scene — but for the way it painstakingly builds its bold characterizations to inscrutable emotions without ever feeling laborious, Winter Sleep is quite possibly his strongest film to date.