Haluk Bilginer in 'Winter Sleep'
Haluk Bilginer in 'Winter Sleep'

It sounds like the perfect nightmare art film. Doom and foreboding gather, over long Turkish-speaking hours, around the head of a hotel owner and landlord in remotest Cappadocia, land of cave dwellings. Scenes of talk or quarrel epically unspool between him and his wife and visiting sister. It snows. Fractious tenants of the hero cut up rough about rents. More snow; more quarrelling; more settling of scores new or old . . . Final running time: 196 minutes. Film wins Golden Palm.

No wonder Hollywood storms annually, at Cannes, about the filmic doings of Greater Europe and points east. Tinseltown’s costly hokum keeps losing out to the holistic fables of subtitle-land. But then why shouldn’t it? In Winter Sleep Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Cannes Grand Jury prize), has made another testing marathon about human beings marooned in humanity. Again it’s glorious; again it’s talky; again its insights sear; again its length is remorseless. Again it’s the best thing to be seen in any city or country where it’s showing.

Don’t expect action. In the opening scene a tenant’s son smashes the window of the hero’s jeep with a stone. Later a wild horse is captured; a wad of money meets a spectacular fate; four men, near the close, get drunk . . . That’s about it. Yet how do you define “action”? Mainly what happens is the slow dismantling of Aydin’s pride, and reshaping of his life, across small spaces and vast omni-minutes of conversation.

Aydin’s name means “artist” in Turkish. The hotelier and ex-actor (magisterially played by Haluk Bilginer) has grand ideas of his contribution to culture, in partial retirement, as an essayist for a local magazine. He’s a small-time philosopher digging for wisdom’s redemption. But his divorce-bruised sister (Demet Akbag), in a long low-lit scene, starts to peck his amour-propre to pieces. Later Aydin gets his misogynistic payback by humbling his wife (Melissa Sözen) and ridiculing her charity works. But even that cruelty does not rest. It spreads a new, slow illumination, both merciful and merciless.

Being in this cave hotel glowing with antique light and filamented with love and hate is like being stuck in a lightbulb before it blows. Or like being in Plato’s cave unsure if you’re an original or a shadow-replica. Superbly scripted by Ceylan and his wife and writing partner Ebru, this film about self-deception versus truth – truth to oneself and about oneself – makes talk seem action. Apocalypse hovers in the story’s eaves. Everyone is goaded mentally to remould his/her existence. After three hours in which “nothing happens”, we realise everything from the ground upward has happened. We feel the aftershocks, subtle yet seismic, long after we leave the epicentre/auditorium.

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