A Beautiful, Desolate 'Winter Sleep'

Dec 18, 2014
Originally published on December 18, 2014 8:01 pm

My favorite movie of 2014 is three hours long, and it's about Turkish people who live in caves. Winter Sleep is all talk and vistas of steppes so beautiful and so desolate, they'll make you weep. Don't go away: Like all of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's work, the film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, is about life itself, in general but with thrilling particularity. You want to know why we can't get along, don't you?

Inspired by Chekhov and other literary heavies, Winter Sleep covers a seemingly routine, momentous few days in the undistinguished life of Mr. Aydin (the outstanding Haluk Bilginer), an independently wealthy landlord who lives with his beautiful, much younger wife (Melisa Sozen) and divorced sister (Demet Akbag) in an inherited, discreetly opulent hotel cut into an ancient slab of rock in rural Anatolia. Not incidentally, the hotel is called The Othello. Not coincidentally, the women are restless. So are the natives, not that Aydin would notice until it's rubbed in his face.

A former actor ("I prefer thespian") now past his prime, Aydin blogs about politics and religion for a local broadsheet while trying to get a history of Turkish theater off the ground. He leaves the day-to-day running of the estate to his steward, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), who likes to talk with his fists. Which may be why Aydin is shocked when his car window is shattered by the young son of a tenant family facing eviction for not paying rent. The boy's father is belligerent; his uncle, the local imam (Serhat Kilic), an unctuous type who comes on like Uriah Heep, falls over himself to keep the peace.

For all the undertone of thuggery, there's little physical violence in Winter Sleep, though it's safe to say the implications of simmering rebellion around the village are unlikely to strike joy into the hearts of those who run Turkey today. Inside Aydin's cozy family digs, lit with a deceptively warm yellow light and with Schubert on the soundtrack, all seems tasteful and civilized. In fact, its inmates are killing each other with words that insinuate and devastate. Very slowly, then with growing speed and precision, Aydin's frustrated women tear his deluded self-importance to shreds. (The crisp, literate script is written by Ceylan with his wife, Ebru). Over and over, he deflects and belittles them — and anyone else who dares criticize him — with a condescending snigger and a bloviating lecture on the correct order of things. Until, that is, he is forcefully brought to the realization that nobody can stand him.

Aydin may be a species of monster, but he's a scarily familiar one. And he's far from the only one in his idle-rich family who's incapable of grasping the difference between political activism and noblesse oblige. As the weather shifts in this deceptively tranquil landscape, with its haunting ambient sounds of barking dogs and galloping wild horses, snow and events catch up with Aydin and his family. Their small sufferings fan out into the great abysses — of class, race, generation, religion, tradition and modernity — that divide us all from one another.

Under Ceylan's serenely ironic, Chekhovian gaze, Aydin the slumlord ends up as much a prisoner of privilege as his tenants, freezing in their hovels, are of their abject poverty. To the degree that we share his willful myopia, we all still live in caves.

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