Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan specializes in slow-burn narratives set against poetically desolate landscapes, but his movies always have a clear direction. From the melancholic romance of "Climates" to the elements of a police procedural in "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," Ceylan consistently manages to combine genre ingredients into a much subtler amalgam of imagery and subtext that transcends any semblance of formula. At three hours 16 minutes, his latest, "Winter Sleep," renders this approach in extensively detailed terms, even as it expands his range.
A mesmerizing, superbly acted portrait of a wealthy, self-involved landowner and the various figures impacted by his reign, the movie marks the director's talkiest achievement. Always a novelistic filmmaker in structure, Ceylan has made his most literary work. While it doesn't always earn its heft, "Winter Sleep" is both subdued and rich in details, its plot growing slowly over a series of extensive conversations. It's a robust, challenging experience he's been building toward with his previous features, as well as an adventurous step above them.
At its center is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a bearded, middle-aged grouch who lives on a hill high above Inherited land owned by his late father. His much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Soezen), spends her days gazing out the window, bored with their empty, privileged lives, while Aydin constantly grouses about how to spend his own time. An ex-actor thinking about writing a book project on Turkish cinema, he lives in the shadow of his previous accomplishments, alienated from the community that resents his his privilege. "The elephant gave birth to a mouse," he sighs, one of many instances in which Ceylan's textured script matches his movie's symbolic visuals that draw out the conceit of a man antagonized by everyone around him.
Peering at the world through a scowl and half-grin, Aydin evolves into the movie's Scrooge-like wanderer, not villainous so much as short-sighted and lost in a sea of aristocratic self-interests. More than ever before, Ceylan foregrounds his actor's physicality and expressive line-reading with near-theatrical ramifications. Bilginer rises to the occasion; while underappreciated outside of his native country and the U.K. (American audiences may know him best as the bad guy in "Ishtar"), the Herculean task of carrying this movie should leave no doubt about his skill.
With the exception of a few telling sequences involving Aydin's observation of creatures in nature that draw out his repressed sympathetic side, "Winter Sleep" rarely lingers in silence. Instead, Ceylan's Chekhovian rumination on prosperity finds its characters huddle, talking in close quarters. Whether engaged in an extensive conversation with his wife involving the definition of "resisting evil" or arguing with her about the best way to spend their money, "Winter Sleep" takes its time establishing Aydin's troubled, self-involved subjectivity. To some degree echoing the pensive musings of Romanian New Wave Cinema, Ceylan constructs a fascinating character whose conflicted state has Shakespearean dimensions, even as the story lacks such narrative sweep. Instead, the devil is always in the details of Aydin's constant chatter, more end than means.
Which is not to say the movie's devoid of direction: The filmmaker drops a few nuggets of plot early on to set Aydin's disoriented state in motion, and steadily builds toward a payoff that brings it full circle: While Aydin is driving through his land with his assistant, a child throws a rock at their windshield, prompting confrontation with the boy's disgruntled father. His anger toward Aydin over hiking rent and confiscating his possessions as collateral shows the extent to which the man has alienated himself from the sole duty at his disposal, giving his reign a despotic quality moments later when the disgruntled man's brother takes the boy to Aydin's home in the hopes of obtaining forgiveness. Forced to kiss Aydin's hand, the boy promptly collapses, suggesting that the impact of his oppression has begun to percolate through the generations.
That abrupt moment hits Aydin's wife harder than the man himself, at which point Nihal begins to emerge as the more sympathetic figure. Soezen's somber, worried expressions routinely imply her sense of feeling trapped by her husband as much as the village locals, so it comes as no surprise when she forges a bond with the child's uncle over the prospects of a philanthropic cause. Yet that well-intentioned decision only further encourages Aydin's derisive attitude toward the woman's good intentions and the shock that she experiences when they don't turn out as planned.
"Winter Sleep" contains a few surprising moments of levity, from scene of drunken men dueling with Shakespeare citations, to the peculiar nature of Aydin's relationship with a disadvantaged horse. At one point, a rabbit-hunting session leads to one of the movie's darker signifiers, while conveying a strange feeling of existential uplift on the character's terms. Such signifiers are never forced, however, as each telling moment arrives in the context of the movie's enthralling pace.
Despite its emphasis on discussion, "Winter Sleep" never skimps on its appearance; Ceylan's typically beautiful imagery shifts between warm, candlelit interiors, the deep blue hues of the mountainside, and the frosty wonderland promised by the title. Bathed in an atmosphere that encourages introspection, its contemplative tone always has a sense of purpose. It sympathizes with Aiden's narcissistic plight for gratification without excusing it.
Ceylan draws a knowing contrast between the protagonist's aggrandizing statements and behavior. "You should be a model for your community," he announces early on, as if announcing a new personal goal. Instead, he arrives at a state of profound indifference, as "Winter Sleep" shifts from a restrained character study on the darker ramifications of affluence as its solitary protagonist eventually finds himself too rich to care.
"Winter Sleep" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It does not yet have U.S. distribution.