CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: It takes time to see people as they really are and not simply as they want to be seen. How long? Three hours, give or take, if you happen to be Nuri Bilge Ceylan. That’s how long the Turkish writer/director tends to spend circumnavigating the characters of his engrossing domestic epics. He invites you to hover in the room with them until the bigger picture starts to form.
This technique worked to extraordinary effect in his casually shattering masterpiece Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, which turned a sleepy-eyed police procedure into a life-affirming event for all involved. Ceylan crammed us into a hatchback with some burly authorities and one very dodgy looking perpetrator, and their ciggie breaks and small talk made a long night drive something truly special.
In his latest film, the Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, Ceylan sheds light on a shaky marriage, tiptoeing around each of the parties cooped up in their rustic boutique hotel. Over the course of a cold winter old resentments start to surface, and the clanging iron furnace can't match the heat of the arguments that ensue.
We encounter Aydin (Haluk Bilgener) first and see him as the charming host that his guests do; for all intents and purposes he’s an affable aesthete and former actor with a beautiful wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen). His ego is big, to be sure, but he seems to have the goods to back it up. Nihal, for her part, doesn’t make such a good first impression. She seems churlish when her husband asks for her advice about a nice letter that inexplicitly asks for his help. We’ve been dropped in the middle of something even they don’t know has started, but give it time and a different reading of that same scene will start to emerge.
Aydin and Nihal run the Hotel Othello with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ). She is still reeling from a recent divorce, so her days consist of reading magazines and drinking tea, and offering constructive feedback on Aydin’s provocative columns in the local newspaper, The Voice of the Steppe.
Aydin is mildly offended when a guest hints that a picture of non-existent horses on the hotel website is false advertising. To keep up appearances he asks a horse trader to break in an Anatolian stallion of good breeding that would pass for the one in the .jpg. The wild specimen arrives just as things wind down with the off-season, so is left to languish in boredom in a drafty stable while its new owners do the same in the comfy chairs above.
Outside of the hotel Aydin is a something of real estate mogul; he inherited a number of properties in the valley but with the economy being what it is, the unemployed tenants are starting to default. But from his cosy study he’s unaware that his people have started confiscating televisions; a rock thrown by a pint-sized amateur sniper makes it clear how well his debt recovery methods are being received.
An incident with the boy’s family brings Aydin into more contact with the poor than he’s comfortable with, and the flattery of an envoy sent to makes appeals on their behalf just makes him mad. He vents with a pious tirade in the paper, and his sister calls it out for the petty posturing it is.
Necla’s criticism strikes a nerve and defensively, he returns the favour, and their passive aggressive barbs get more and more nasty. She throws in a few sideways digs in about Nihal too, and through smiling teeth the home truthbombs start scoring direct hits.
When Necla gets started she runs with it, and like a virus, Nihal gets in on the act too. She calls Aydin out for belittling her community charity work, and goes ballistic when he makes a late play to get involved in her projects. Their wounded egos pour petrol on the already raging fire, and lead to more vicious character assassinations that once out there, can’t possibly be taken back.
I realise that the prospect of being stuck in a hotel for three hours with arguing rich people sounds like a special kind of hell that serves wild mushrooms with breakfast, but Winter Sleep is stitched together with so much wit and self-aware theatricality, it’s abundantly clear how Ceylan really feels about the injured egos of the remotely rich.
Don't be put off by the running time, either; it's really only a scene or two longer than the first of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movies (though it feels much shorter); the quality of the writing and the pace makes a far more rewarding journey.