Cannes: Winter Sleep review

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is something of a monolith. It’s dark, foreboding, seemingly impenetrable and highly impressive to look at. If you can crack the surface, however, there’s something rich and dense within.

The film revolves around Haluk Bilginer as Aydin, a wealthy patriarch and former actor, although he prefers the phrase ‘thespian.’ He lives amidst the Steppes of Anatolia in the Hotel Othello with his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen), and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag).  Sozen’s portrayal of the angry Nihal is startling, with the actress convincingly switching between fragility and intense anger with real skill and confidence.

Hotel Othello’s name is one of many references to Shakespeare that were woven into both in the set dressing and the dialogue. Conspicuously absent, however, is the title of King Lear, a play to which this film bears more than a passing resemblance.

We are introduced to Aydin as a relatively passive character, but as Winter Sleep‘s three hours of screen time unspool, Ceylan and his co-screenwriter Ebru Ceylan peel back many layers of Aydin’s character. And with each skin shed, he’s revealed to be even more unlikeable than before.

At one point, Aydin’s wife describes him as “selfish, spiteful and cynical” and it’s very easy to see how she might come to that conclusion. For particular emphasis, the assessment follows a tense scene in which Aydin belittles and patronises Nihal in a way that’s incredibly hard to watch. It’s an overwhelming scene, and draining, both emotionally and intellectually.

Indeed, there is a sense throughout Winter Sleep that Ceylan is challenging the audience to give up. He’s constantly beating us with agonisingly dense dialogue, all of it loaded with deeply felt malice and tense emotional subtexts.

This is a certainly a change of pace from Ceylan’s celebrated Once Upon in Anatolia, the 2011 film that won him his fans amongst the devotees of ‘slow cinema.’ Compared the glacial progress of Anatolia, with its long shots of landscapes, Winter Sleep seems almost like a locomotive, its engine catching fire from scene after scene of passionate resentment.

Nontheless, Ceylan did find time in the film for a few more shots of the beautiful Anatolian landscape, all of them shot with an eye for stunning detail by Gokhan Tiryaki. I’d recommend that sceptics of digital cinematography sit down with Ceylan’s pictures and consider the possibility that blame lies not with the tools but with the workmen.

As Winter Sleep unsurprisingly approaches a dissatisfying narrative conclusion, Ceylan offers a few momentary suggestions of change in Aydin. Perhaps he’s finally developing some regrets and has grown to understand how his self-belief is a failing and not a strength. But what we’re left with ultimately leaves it far more likely that Aydin’s confidence remains and, despite the lengthy tale we’ve just witnessed, nothing has really changed and the monolith still stands, immovable and unshaken.