It would be difficult to write a review of this year’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan Cannes film in the space we normally intend for this type of article in Screen Comment. Our reviews are usually about 350 words and this word count just would not do it justice (plus, there’s always another movie to go watch during Cannes). Instead, I’ll give some impressions of it, by far my favorite one in this 67th edition of the Cannes Festival, and expand on this later (especially that I had planned on a second viewing before the end of the festival–overly ambitious? Maybe).
“Winter sleep” is the story of a retired actor-turned-hotelier Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) who runs a B&B in Anatolia with his sister and his wife (the striking Melisa Sözen), and coming to terms with the fact that he and his beautiful, and younger, wife have outlived their marriage. They are no longer a loving couple, although we are given hints that they used to be (she was a debutante and he was a very well-known theater actor, they met, they got married).
Bilge Ceylan has accomplished a near-miracle: he has written and directed a superb and well-paced film and peopled it with compelling characters whose tortured personalities are allowed to develop over the arc of the entire film. As in his previous films, Ceylan strikes a contrast between the vastness of the Anatolian mountain region and the intimacy of his characters’ development.
We are allowed to peer deeply within these characters’ psyches, Ceylan peeling away at their flaws and their regrets and also their ambitions in a deliberate but also subtle manner. As in his previous films seasons provide the pacing, with winter’s snows slowly covering the surrounding mountains and making passage ever more difficult for the hotelier, his aide and their guests. The more the snow falls (it eventually becomes a snow storm), the more the family becomes torn apart.
Ceylan has stuck to a leitmotiv throughout his films, including this new one: the enormous strain put up by men in the pursuit of their efforts, without ever surrendering, in spite of their loneliness, sadness, at times, and the tragicomic turns of events that thrust them towards their fate. “Winter Sleep” has a lot more dialogue than previous Ceylan films, some long conversations on charity, the differences between the rich and the poor or the distinction between religious and secular people yielding some funny moments. It is a highly-refined human study, free of manufactured sentiment or cliches. It’s also the talkiest Ceylan film, ever.
The thing about Ceylan is, he does not try to lure us in–in fact, he probably doesn’t care all that much about the audience. He tells a story that’s set within a difficult context (a handful of people stuck in a hotel in the mountains under a snow storm) and he has told it like no one else has thus far in this festival. And given the length and the ambition of the project, I’ll wager that this film will not find an equal in this year’s selection.