Architecture is one of the underutilized tools of the cinema, so it’s always refreshing when filmmakers take care to work it into their mise en scene. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan does that splendidly in Winter Sleep, taking advantage of some of the most arresting global architecture I’ve seen.
Set and largely filmed in the rocky region of Cappadocia, Winter Sleep features homes that have seemingly been scoured out of the enormous boulders that dominate the hillsides. From the outside, it looks like a real-world version of Star Wars’ Mos Eisley, in which the landscape has melded into civilization, and vice versa. From inside, these spaces have the aura of elegantly appointed caves.
This sense of interiority is fitting, for the movie’s central figure is a man entirely closed in on himself. It’s not that Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is an introverted recluse; indeed, as a prominent, affable landowner who runs a boutique hotel for international tourists, he’s something of an unofficial mayor. Yet he holds his position with a narcissistic grip, only concerned with his own comforts, his own habits, his own thoughts. A former actor, he now pontificates on matters he knows little about for an opinion column in a local newspaper.
The sense of interiority is fitting, for the movie’s central figure is a man entirely closed in on himself.
Winter Sleep charts Aydin’s awakening to his own self-interest over the course of the long, cold off-season, when the hotel is mainly empty aside from his bitter sister (Demet Akbag), deferential handyman (Ayberk Pekcan) and younger, suffocated wife (Melisa Sozen). The movie is structured as a series of lengthy, revealing conversations among these players, with firelight flickering among the cave-like walls, casting accusatory shadows across their faces.
In this sense, Winter Sleep is not as expansive or dense as Ceylan’s masterwork, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. You could even reductively call it a character portrait. Yet there is still a lot going on here, especially pertaining to class (Aydin has an almost physical revulsion toward his struggling tenants) and charity (in the way it explores the motivations behind Aydin’s philanthropy, the movie reminded me of Nicole Holfocener’s incisive Please Give).
Despite running over three hours, Winter Sleep remains captivating, largely due to Bilginer’s performance. He makes Aydin charming and insufferable in equal measure, with a dismissive chuckle that will drive you mad. Yet despite the air of surety he projects, Aydin also seems dazed by his place in the world, trudging about his property in a trench coat that looks like the gown of a weary monarch. (“My kingdom may be small, but at least I’m the king here,” he mutters at one point.) Part of Aydin’s confusion comes from the fact that he’s only now realizing the world doesn’t really need him. If he never emerged from his black hole of a study, would anyone notice?
That’s the worry that leads Aydin to free the wild horse that has been captured for his hotel. (It’s a baldly metaphorical moment about releasing control, but it works.) The corralling of that horse earlier in the film is one of the more stirring visual moments in Winter Sleep, as the beast thrashes about in a muddy stream, fighting against the ropes that have been lashed around it. Then I saw the horse as a symbol of Aydin’s tenants – a dirty, lesser species in his mind – but by the end of the film, I thought differently. Exhausted after the struggle, the horse falls to the ground, gasping for breath, defeated. It wasn’t until the end of the picture that I realized the horse was Aydin, suffocated by a lifetime of narcissism.