Twitter is double-stuffed with check-your-privilege messages for entitled men, but I've rarely seen one as potent as this singular line from Nuri Bilge Ceylan's out-of-time masterwork Winter Sleep, a Chekhovian drama of marriage and class and the way both can inspire insulated cluelessness. "Just once, I'd like you to defend something that might cost you, and have feelings that don't benefit yourself," says a miserable young wife (Melisa Sözen) to the wealthy older husband who has given her a life free of all wants — except those of the soul. The wife has devoted herself to charity, to the improvement of education in a nearby village on the Turkish steppe; the husband, a rare soft-spoken blowhard, has recently horned in on her fundraising, eager to show her how to do the books correctly. And such a complaint is rare from this quiet, observant wife. As Nihal, the husband's sister, puts it, "She's an expert at criticizing by remaining silent."
That husband, meanwhile, is something of a pompous lord. He pens dreary columns for a local newspaper, attempting to lift the population to his moral level. He runs a gorgeous hotel hacked out of stone formations, and as a landlord, he worries his tenants think he's going soft, even though we learn, not too far into the film's justified 196-minute running time, that the collection men in his employ recently beat a debtor-tenant. This patient, beautiful, painful, engrossing film pits husband and wife against each other and their world in a series of extended conversations and confrontations. We're slumped with them in fire-lit interiors, our bones chilled just like theirs, as in long, static takes they talk, mostly without heat, about everything that matters most. For all their silences, these scenes are of the highest drama.
The husband has cruelty and foolishness in him, but he's not wholly cruel, and he's not wholly a fool. As Haluk Bilginer's richly layered performance makes clear, he's just another man who has done well and has lost the capacity to imagine the lives of those who haven't: Passively, a little fearfully, he punishes the families that can't pay their rent, even as he goes to the trouble of procuring a gorgeous Anatolian horse to impress one tourist staying in his hotel. He'll anonymously donate money to charity, only to brag about it when in his cups — when he proves his wife's accusations true by imagining his life is the unfair one. The greatest tragedy here: No matter how much people hate him, or how much he might, at moments of revelation, hate himself, that husband is always endowed with the confident equilibrium to keep going, to keep living, to keep assuming that he and his life matter. The wife — not so much.
These tense, arresting scenes could work on a stage, but the film benefits immeasurably from cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki's lensing of the wintry steppes — broken, barren land for these broken, barren lives. Winter Sleep won 2014's Palme d'Or, and it would have been competitive any year.