Throughout Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s magisterial Palme D’Or-winner Winter Sleep, Aydin, the proprietor of a mountaintop hotel in Anatolia and the de facto ruler of the humble village below, has toxic encounters with people that he cannot understand. He believes himself to be a fair and thoughtful man, but at every turn he encounters resistance from his young wife, who’s suffocating under his wing; his sister and chief confidante, who gives him advice he doesn’t want to hear; and from the citizens below, who resent his intervention, even if it seems perfectly benevolent. Unfolding over a riveting three-hours-plus, Winter Sleep is the story of a man isolated by his own vanity and arrogance, but the fact that Aydin doesn’t know he’s an asshole brings the film an immense emotional gravity. This isn’t merely about the follies of a misanthrope, it’s an epic tragedy about life in the Ivory Tower and the inability to understand—much less empathize with—other human beings.
Returning to the arid, harshly beautiful terrain of his last film, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Ceylan uses the landscape to re-enforce the literal and figurative interiors where most of the drama takes place. Aydin is not given to leaving the hotel grounds; others must come to him. Nevertheless, the inciting incident happens in the great outdoors, when Aydin and his driver/enforcer (Ayberk Pekcan) have a rock thrown through the passenger-side window of their car. Aydin wants to handle this reasonably—it’s his habit to wish for “reasonable” outcomes, then act aggrieved when he’s unable to get them—so his driver talks to the father of the boy about what happened. Aydin expects an apology, if not restitution, but the father instead reacts with an anger that continues to fester over time, leading to a scene where the boy has to come up to the hotel to make amends.
As Winter Sleep goes on, Ceylan adds more context to explain the resentment the townspeople have for Aydin. He doesn’t appear to be a terribly forgiving debt collector, and he has to be cajoled by his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) into donating to the local schools—a mission he subsequently spoils by getting involved. And his wealth affords him column space in the newspaper, where he’s been writing missives that show little but contempt for the spiritually faithful. Meanwhile, he reminisces about his early career as an actor and considers penning the definitive tome about Turkish theater, which he naturally assumes people will be eager to read.
Though his actions invariably have negative consequences for the family members and citizens he intends to help, Ceylan doesn’t present Aydin as a garden-variety elitist. As played by Haluk Bilginer, whose craggy features are as compelling to Ceylan as the surrounding mountaintops, Aydin genuinely wants to connect with other people—or at least be seen as a wise, benevolent leader. But like so many leaders, he makes a show of being thoughtful without actually listening to what’s being said. The triumph of Winter Sleep is that Ceylan and Bilginer don’t hold Aydin at the remove he holds everyone else to: His failure to connect torments him, and that can be felt as keenly as the frustration and heartbreak of those in his sphere.
Much of Winter Sleep is taken up by long conversations, particularly two in the second half that gobble up a hefty share of the screen time. But the Chekhov-inspired screenplay, by Ceylan and his wife Ebru, is paced to allow pockets of tension to open up gradually, and Ceylan’s intimate framing keeps it from seeming like a filmed play. Ceylan is almost certainly dipping into Turkish politics with this allegory, but the observations and lessons of Winter Sleep have a more universal application. Aydin’s elitism is a common condition, shared with others of his kind the world over; he takes a road poorly paved with good intentions.