You don’t feel the seasons in many movies. You don’t feel the grip of the seasons on the humans that would threaten the natural locales that beckon those seasons. You don’t feel the weight of temporal weather and the last forbidding gasp of a season’s tectonic force before it fades away having unleashed the heftiest dying breath it could fathom. You do not feel winter, especially. Frequently, the shorthand for the most temperamental of seasons is a lot of pale white, but we seldom see the nebulous majesty and the tactile dampness of a winter that vacillates between elegant and cruel, often both in the same moment.
Take 2014’s Snowpiercer, a wonderful little punk-rock Marxist parable with the pummeling kinetic fireworks of a youth’s dreams of revolution. Even there, director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t make us feel the weight of the perpetual snow, nominally the arbiter for human imprisonment on a speeding train for the rest of eternity. The outside is a blanket of white, no doubt, but you sense the creeping dread of a snowboard commercial right around the corner. You begin to wonder if the snow is really just cocaine and you wandered into a Jackass film, or Oliver Stone’s house. It’s so clean that it must be dirty.
In Winter Sleep, the dirt is front and center. The primary, primal majesty of Winter Sleep is how primitive its world is, how stricken down to the barest of elements the empty region, somehow ready for winter even when there is no snow, feels. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose prior film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia remains one of the precious few masterpieces of the 2010s thus far, frames his primordial, earthen muse – the steppes of Anatolia – with mournful decay and incomparably wide shots to render the humans and their structures not but pittances in the wider battle for the Earth itself. It is a dangerously natural space, ready to do violence to people by its very presence.
But Ceylan understands the fundamental mysticism of a locale that seems arcane and unnatural in its very construction – endless basalt malformations of land and flat, brutal rocks adorning teetering, pallid longitudinal trees of stone is not most people’s go-to background for “nature”, and Ceylan essays a land not only drearily of the Earth but cosmically omnipotent. At its best, which is almost always, Winter Sleep feels like a Turkish Western ala McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with characters lost amidst the ends of the world and struggling to survive a war with no survivors. It is like entering a resting oblivion; you feel the humans just ready to turn to stone.
Winter Sleep isn’t just a tapestry of nature, mind you, but the unforgiving external spaces are necessary contrasts for the even more unforgiving clutter of the interiors, where mountaintop hotel owner Aydin (Haluk Biginer) has trouble deciphering whether his abode is truly his patriarchal mountain kingdom, or if it is his prison. He lives a quiet life of leisure writing articles on the dirtiness of the poor, it seems, and planning for a book he uses less as a tangible object or impetus for self-exploration than as a reminder to himself, and to others, that he is educated and intellectual in nature, and that, by virtue of his habits, a superior, more enlightened person. We get the sense that this realization dawned on his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who has entrapped herself in a prison of wealth and self-serving charity, years ago. Necla (Demet Akbağ), Aydin’s recently divorced sister, fills out the third wheel of an increasingly hostile battleground of internal rooms that pointedly never connect in any register that resembles “house”. Each room is its own prison, separate from the others, never a unified whole because there is no unity in this house or its people. The inside spaces are always ready to kill.
Written with his wife Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s dissection of class and gender relations in modern day Turkey is keen on insight and generous on applicability. A possible reading of the film is more strictly specific, with Aydin a habitual allegory for AKP – the center right, majority party of Turkey – and their self-important elitism, paternalism, and contradictory visages of tradition and progressivism. I prefer a more generalizable reading, befitting the almost abstract netherworld of the environment the film takes in – nominally of Turkey but not truly a locale we hope to find anywhere in our world. Aydin is an elitist, no doubt, and Ceylan takes great care to explore what makes him tick, but he doesn’t have to specifically represent modern day Turkey so much as the human face of modern, masculine elitism everywhere. Particularly notable is his sudden drive for charity to impress his wife late in the film. Initially, he only has eyes for building a school, something we suspect is an imposed contrast to his wife’s more ever-present charity of fixing leaks and providing meals and infrastructure in existing, broken-down schools. We aren’t told this, but inflections in Bilinger’s face reveal that her charity is too dirty for him, and he is more nestled into his old ways of “noble” and “ignoble” giving.
No character is off the hook in Winter Sleep though. Nihal, toward the end of the film, makes her own charitable endeavor that is no less self-serving than Aydin’s; in her eyes, we see that she is less interested in treating the human she is giving to as a person than in fixing him as an object, as though he was but one of Aydin’s buildings. She’d rather prove herself superior to her husband than genuinely build bridges between her and the lower class she resides around but shows little interest in connecting with. When she enters into the house of a downtrodden family, all she wants is to leave as soon as possible.
The only knock against Winter Sleep is relative; it is a tad less perfect than the impeccable Once Upon a Time. Shots ring out with majesty, and the film is filled with more pregnant pauses than any other work of its year, but the judicious attention to craft found in Once Upon a Time is slightly missed here. It isn’t simply that Winter Sleep is longer, too. It is a question of commitment. Nearly every shot in Once Upon a Time remains a marvel of cinematography and framing, and while Winter Sleep is no slouch for perfect frames, the depth of the expressive lighting is not matched by Ceylan’s previous film, nor is his commitment to framing characters in the shot as an external reflection of their internal psychology.
Perhaps it is simply that Ceylan is such a genius with exteriors that the replete interiors of this film do him a slight disservice, and this film lacks the visual economy of his previous feature; more frequently, it feels the need to speak and speak and speak. It is no milquetoast drone of didactic dialogue, but if you squint hard enough, it might sound like one, which is a shame. Ceylan is too gifted a natural filmmaker to rely on dialogue like a crutch, and he typically does not fall back to these safer regions of cinema here. He is tiptoeing the line here though, and with his prior film, he was never even within spitting distance.
Update 2017: I’m a tad less enamored of Winter Sleep the second-time; it’s boldface visuals sometimes feel like a Palme-ready coating rather than an expression of consciousness or an exploratory personal need (unless the consciousness is simply a desire to win awards).