The bookies' pick to win Cannes, a more than three-hour-long Turkish drama "Winter Sleep" by festival favourite Nuri Bilge Ceylan, drew rave reviews Saturday after its red-carpet premiere.
Greeted with an lengthy standing ovation at its sole Cannes screening, the cast and crew basked in critical praise as they met the press.
The film stars Haluk Bilginer, known to international audiences from the long-running British soap opera EastEnders, as a wealthy retired actor living with his much younger wife (the stunning Melisa Sozen) and his recently divorced sister (popular comic actress Demet Akbag).
Based on three short stories by Anton Chekhov, their tense domestic triangle plays out in a quaint hotel serving hikers and motocross enthusiasts drawn in the summertime to the spectacular landscapes of Turkey's Cappadocia region.
Aydin, the husband, acts like the benevolent monarch of his remote community, dispensing charity and, when he sees fit, harsh discipline to the villagers.
He sees himself, however, as a champion of enlightened reason in conservative Muslim Anatolia, and a guardian of Turkey's rich cultural tradition.
Working for years on a history of Turkish theatre that he never manages to write and contributing a regular column to the local paper "Voices of the Steppe", Aydin grows more insufferable to his wife and sister.
One day a young boy from the village hurls a rock at Aydin's Land Rover while he and his handyman are riding through the countryside, cracking the window.
The incident triggers vicious rows at Aydin's house, as the women in his life are disgusted to watch him stretch out his hand for a kiss when the boy is dragged by his uncle to ask for forgiveness.
Their intricately pitched, often remarkably lengthy dialogues, written by Ceylan and his wife Ebru, dig deep and drew comparisons to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, a master of moral questioning and the personal drama writ large.
- 'Beautiful magnum opus' -
Trade magazine Variety swooned over the film's "vibrantly conceived, fully fleshed-out human characters".
It said Ceylan was "at the peak of his powers" with the film, "a richly engrossing and ravishingly beautiful magnum opus that surely qualifies as the least boring 196-minute movie ever made".
British daily The Guardian called it a "stunning picture" while Deborah Young of the Hollywood Reporter said it "demands a commitment to attentive viewing that, despite the film's sometimes terrible longueurs, pays off in the end".
Ceylan has already won prizes at Cannes for his previous films "Uzak", "Climates", "Three Monkeys" and "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia".
And a handful of betting websites had picked "Winter Sleep" even before its screening as the favourite to capture the Cannes Palme d'Or top prize on May 24, presumably based on his track record and a sense that he was due.
And by Saturday it had rocketed to the top of the critics' poll in French magazine Le Film Francais, and a close second place in Britain's Screen behind Mike Leigh's "Mr Turner".
Bilginer called the 183-page script "frightening" at first but "beautifully written" and "no-holds barred about self-criticism".
He said Ceylan "knows acting more than actors do", calling him a "master of communication".
Ceylan declined to comment on the political upheaval in Turkey following this week's devastating coal mine disaster, but called it a "bitter day" for his country.
He said he aimed to ask probing questions in his films that would equip audiences to confront issues facing their societies.
"The duty of a film director is to focus more on the soul of the spectator," he told reporters.
"In my films I try to give people ideas if I can, to nurse their soul, and spectators can learn to be ashamed about certain things... If I want to refer to current events in a film, I'll do it in three years' time."
"Winter Sleep" is one of 18 films vying for the Palme d'Or.