Several of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films explore the strange vistas of Anatolia (roughly the Asian part of Turkey), unworldly landscapes that reflect the souls of his characters. He respects the silence, but his latest film, “Winter Sleep,” is unusually chatty and keenly claustrophobic, perhaps because it’s based on Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Wife” and because it takes place in a rustic hotel in the winter.
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, in an astounding performance, one of many such in the film) cuts a striking figure when he first appears — bearded, gray-haired, black-clad, and craggily handsome, he considers the wild terrain surrounding his hotel. He looks like a poet pondering nature; but like nearly everyone else in the film, he’s out of tune with nature. He’s a failed actor rich on inherited money, a self-righteous, cynical bully who dismisses the ideas of others with an annoying chuckle.
His hotel, though, seems to spring from the earth. Ominously named the Othello, it seems part of the landscape, a cave-like structure resembling a hobbit hole. Aydin’s much younger, estranged wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), also lives there, but in separate quarters. She’s taken up philanthropy to make herself useful, which contrasts with her husband’s laissez-faire feudalism — he’s a landlord who lets his henchman collect rent, confiscate appliances for non-payment, and conduct evictions of those who have dwelled there, serf-like, for generations.
Nihal looks on in contempt; she despises him, but doesn’t leave.
Aydin’s divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), rounds out the group. She and Aydin have a lot of history, and it all comes out in a long, venomous, often comic, and exquisitely composed verbal donnybrook.
In fact, nearly everyone here hates someone else. The narrative rises and falls with confrontations in which characters let the masks drop (ironically, Aydin reveals the most about himself when he takes a mask off his office wall and puts it on); and with incremental nastiness catalog the other’s faults. Often these lacerating encounters are disguised as exercises in ethical dilettantism. Debating such topics as “What should be done about the poor?” Nihal forms a committee to raise money for new schoolhouses. Necla espouses nonviolence, though in practice it seems more like passive aggression. Aydan’s old friend Suavi (Tamer Levent) says we’re all going to die anyway, so the drinks are on me. And Aydan chuckles dismissively at them all.
Such miserable people; why should we care? Maybe because Ceylan does. By staging this petulant misery in a snow-filled world of melancholy, unearthly beauty, he underscores their tragedy. The occasional appearance of a wild animal hints at a grandeur ignored — a wild horse kept in a cave, a rabbit hiding in brush — and sometimes Aydan responds. If it does not wake him up, at least it makes him dream.