In the vast, carved landscapes of Anatolia lies a hotel embedded into the very rock of the land itself. Inside it are people and debates that show the fractured relationships of the creative and the giving, the emotional and the distanced. They are speaking a mixture of words by director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, his wife and screenwriter, Ebru, and the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. The event lasts just over three hours, the camera meanders and moves very little, and the true feelings and drama rarely rise above a bubbling vibration from underneath. This is Slow Cinema apparently. This is also Palme D’or winning cinema of the highest calibre. It is Winter Sleep.
It’s difficult to switch off the track record of Ceylan as a filmmaker; his past achievements which are becoming increasingly vast, should not affect the reception of his latest work. Yet Winter Sleep seems part of something bigger, the Gesamtkunstwerk of the director’s entire catalogue. There’s no mistaking his patient, determined style as an auteur but Winter Sleep is not a film that is disconnected from its peers; it would be unsurprising if it would later be released as part of a thematic trilogy à la Bergman with the likes of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (2011) and Three Monkeys having several key motifs.
Ceylan’s films appear to be about the breakdown of communication and outcomes that such degradation can produce. The barriers set up in Winter Sleep are pretty clear and allow such a collapse to happen. Aydin, played by the wonderfully gentle but switched off Haluk Bilginer, is a retired actor now running a hotel. He is carrying on from where is parents left off but also now writes weekly, vaguely academic columns for a local newspaper, for which he has still retained some semblance of creativity and fame. His younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen), is bored with his change of lifestyle, clearly craving their earlier times when he was still an actor and the pair lived in Istanbul. Alongside this friction is the presence of Aydin’s recently divorced sister, Decla (Demet Akbag), who is knowingly critical of his recent attitudes, especially his class-ist tendencies towards the lodgers of a house he is the landlord of some way away from the hotel.
There’s a skill to Ceylan’s imagery that belies its somewhat static nature. Within the composition of his shots, the thematic material is often ingrained into the objects and almost blankness of the spaces. This is coupled with the sense of time that Ceylan manages to create which both highlights the length of several scenes and creates an easily flowing feeling of calm; if this is Slow Cinema, it doesn’t feel like it. Scenes around the hotel in particular have a strange, almost uninterested aesthetic to them sometimes to the point where it feels like Ceylan has simply wandered in and captured the conversations.
In the opposite direction to this is the film’s treatment of landscape; it seems almost Romanticist by comparison. Figures are engulfed by the sheer magnitude and scale of the surrounding mountainous vistas meaning their moral problems are often nicely contextualised as being rather petty. The place itself seems extremely suited to the Russian tradition of classical story-telling (in spite of Winter Sleep being a film that is refreshingly Turkish) especially in its coldness which cuts off the characters from a simple, geographical escape and forces them to confront each other and their respective problems.
Bookending each treatise and each confrontation is (largely the second movement of) Schubert’s A Major sonata; a melancholic marker that shows the transition in each scene from intellectual ignorance born out of arrogance to often immeasurable realisations. The music almost acts as a mirror for the characters, or at least a theme for their reaction once they looked into themselves and found very little outside of their crushed dreams and self-deception. By using the music so sparingly, Ceylan keeps the pace of his film steady in the tradition of other films from the so-called Slow movement. But by being so sparse with it, it builds and builds to create a highly effective emotional precedent that becomes more affecting with every appearance.
In its entirety, Winter Sleep is a deeply moving and questioning experience. Not content with simply relating the drama, its characters speak the words of unrealised desires not only to each other but to the viewer as well. Mixing a pathos drenched and surprisingly wry humour with this endless sense of art-house questioning, it presents a powerful illusion of sharing fictional plight and animosity in a way that is ultimately unforgettable. Though not without its fair share of general praise simply for its prestige, Winter Sleep is a worthy winner of Cannes’ top prize and far more thoughtful a film than the descriptions of Slow Cinema can ever really convey.