Playing out against the desolation of wintry Turkish landscapes, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films detail journeys into various hearts of darkness, conveying the distances inherent to human relationships, and the social, economic, and emotional differences which populate those impassable gulfs. From his recent masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia back through the grimly funny Tarkovsky pastiche of Distant, which earned his first prize at Cannes, the illustration of that distance has been conveyed through spatial relationships, primarily that of perplexed characters dwarfed by their external surroundings. That changes slightly in Winter Sleep, a progressively oppressive chamber piece set mostly indoors, expanding on Ceylan’s usual themes of dislocation via a ruminant conversational structure.
A hibernative story of arrogance unbridled, Ceylan’s film chronicles the onset of winter, and the accompanying fading of light, as his protagonist effectively curls up into a ball, closing off from loved ones while caustically hardening his haughty outer shell. A former actor fond of recalling his supposedly bohemian past, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) now lords over a cave-like warren of buildings cosseted in the Anatolian mountains, comprising his cozy family home and an adjoining bed and breakfast catering to visiting tourists. Descended from landowners and still controlling much of the surrounding area, Aydin publicly pretends at approachability and intellectual expansiveness; privately he engages in petty mind games with his family and uses his foreman to bully impoverished tenants. Obsessed with striking the pose of an enlightened country gentleman, he’s secretly tortured by his insecurities, which he attempts to exorcize via endless research for a definitive history of Turkish theater and writing cantankerous columns for a local paper. Mostly he gets off on ordering others around, flexing his overripe masculinity while toadying up to foreign tourists, outlining the larger power structures at play.
As his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), puts it: “You always float to the surface like olive oil.” Aydin’s maliciousness is indeed slippery, and Ceylan’s insistent focus on such a banally vile figure quickly grows stifling. But this sort of macro character analysis steadily pays dividends, across a series of expansively conceived, circular debates, illustrating the means by which the naturally powerful exhibit and exercise control. These conversations also develop the central clash between value systems, namely that of Aydin with one poor family of tenants, perpetually short on rent, whose quiet, homespun humility comes into sharp conflict with Aydin’s evasive entitlement. After the family’s son protests the rent-related beating of his father by throwing a rock through Aydin’s car window, the landlord and his tenants begin a slow-boiling quarrel, through which they seem destined to remain at cross-purposes, despite the conciliatory efforts of the boy’s uncle, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç).
In this central conflict, both parties are seeking different things, and possess opposing perspectives on how to reconcile a disagreement. For Aydin’s poor tenants, honor is the driving force; it’s the tribute they indirectly provide along with their lease payments, and the thing that keeps their family intact. It’s not surprising then that, by way of an apology, the child is forced to kneel and kiss Aydin’s hand; later a gesture of generosity from Aydin’s embattled wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) is forcefully rejected. The rich man, meanwhile, has money, and so his right to respect is a given, which leaves him ample time to obsesses over aesthetics, focusing his disgust on the unattractive character of his tenants’ poverty, their inability to create some illusion of order for his benefit. The conflict creates turmoil for both parties, but Winter Sleep largely focuses on Aydin’s internal struggle, his efforts to compensate for both his neighbors aesthetic failings and his own impetuous behavior, burnishing his reputation and commission the capture of a wild horse. The two sides remain connected throughout, however, and the fate of this animal becomes metaphorically tied to that of the young boy, whose reckless pride mirrors that of his father, a convicted felon broken by his inability to accept his social standing.
Through all this the usual landscapes remain present, but only as bookends to the quiet indoor scenes, circuitous arguments which unspool in masterful shot/reverse-shot sequence. Change is conveyed subtly, via gestures and movements granted the same weight as those looming landscapes, such as the mise-en-scène during the long dressing-down Aydin endures from his sister, the positioning of his hunched back—pushed out against his sibling like a protective hump—assuring that none of this is sinking in. Building off the length and complexity of Anatolia, Ceylan continues to use his extensive running times to novelistic effect, crafting a multifarious portrait of a character whose ridiculous tendencies run deep, humanizing him while simultaneously revealing the entrenched, conservative malevolence that fuels his actions. Staring deep into the darkness of an apparently static character, the director again exhibits his gift for making interesting stories out of predetermined plots, locating small eddies of change in the midst of eternally fixed dynamics.