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Review: Winter Sleep (2014)

Directed by: | 196 minutes | | Actors: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The desolate rocky landscape of Cappadocia. Winter is falling gently. The hotel of the former actor Aydin (a wonderful Haluk Bilginer) is getting ready for her annual hibernation. Boredom is given plenty of leeway to strike. The mutual relationships of the hotel residents are increasingly under pressure over time. Hotel owner (and slum landlord) Aydin plays a prominent role in this. From his ivory tower he looks down on the poor people, the clergy and his wife. From that position he distils his elitist opinions. Life has made him cynical, especially because of his own enthusiasm and disgust at man. Because humanity is not what he believes in it, he widens the gap with his peers. Gradually he loses contact with reality.

His young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) is trapped in an unhappy straightjacket. Her relationship with Aydin has cooled to below freezing point. Certainly when her only goal in life, to support the poor schools in the area, is scorned away by Aydin, their marriage comes under further stress. The young woman’s intentions are good, although her judgment is blinded by a childish naivety. Aydin’s sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), is the superlative when it comes to cynicism. The recently divorced woman walks around with her soul under her arm and seems to feed her scornful energy with conflict.

This creates a stuffy world of mutual distrust, quarrels and pure dissatisfaction, which is masterfully elaborated in “Winter Sleep”. The detailed character sketch of the hotel residents reaches great heights. The calm structure makes the spectator become involved. The initially shows the everyday worries surrounding the hotel, but gradually turns into an intriguing psychological joust. The interaction of the characters, Aydin in the lead, with others becomes more and more of a debatable level. The uncomfortable atmosphere that arises from this shows how the protagonists really put together without losing their humanity. The inability to communicate transparently increases contradictions. Irreversible schisms are the result. The hibernating cracks lead to tragic clashes. But the conflict never explodes in “Winter Sleep”. The film is too subtle for that. It is the subcutaneous rumble that creates the tension. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (known for the well-received “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and “Uzak”) knows how to perform this brilliantly.

The beautiful landscape of Cappadocia plays a taciturn yet functional role in the background that closely resembles the fate of the human characters. The houses carved from stone stand proudly. But the winter conditions erode them just as easily as the relationships between the three hotel residents. The decor thus gives additional depth to the characters.

But “Winter Sleep” is mainly built on a framework of well-written and articulate dialogues. The viewer can quickly become overwhelmed by the extensive use of dialogues, references and philosophical reflections. “Winter Sleep” deals with a large arsenal of questions that are no more unambiguous than Aydin’s character is clear. Somewhat simplistically, these reflections are reminiscent of the work of the great Russian writers, who employed a similar impetuous fatalistic naturalism. The ghost of Fyodor Dostoevsky lurks in almost every scene. The moral questions, the hierarchical structure of society and the role of the corrupt elite in it are all reminiscent of the books of the famous Russian. Anton Chekhov has also been a major influence on “Winter Sleep”. The similar theme is also a beacon of recognition here.

The high literary qualities of “Winter Sleep” are therefore beyond dispute. But there is also a downside to this. Visually, the film has its limitations in the scenes in which dialogue is central. Although there are plenty of beautiful shots to be seen, a large part of the film consists of ordinary shot-reverse shots. Character A looks at character B, who is often out of the picture. The next shot shows the opposite, creating the illusion that both characters are talking to each other. It is a classic editing technique, but somewhat limiting in its image tension. It is a minor drawback in an otherwise excellent print.

In a film in which apparently little happens, there is enough between the lines to think about, to consult one’s own ethical palette and simply enjoy n all the beautiful texts and images. At the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, “Winter Sleep” won the Golden Palm for best film. All in all, that price is more than justified.

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