PRINT November 2006


KYOKO: Life is disappointing, isn’t it?
NORIKO: Yes, it is.

—from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953)

CERTAINLY AMONG THE HALF-DOZEN FINEST FILMS of the past few years, Climates definitively establishes the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as a major presence within contemporary world cinema. Premiering at Cannes last May and making its US debut at the New York Film Festival last month, Climates, Ceylan’s fourth feature, is currently enjoying a limited theatrical release. His previous three feature-length films—The Small Town (1997), Clouds of May (1999), and Distant (2002)—are all available on DVD.

While each has its own distinct tone, thematic, and look, the four films add up to a coherent, and complex, oeuvre, the mark of a major artist; there is no repetition but, rather, a mutually suggestive interrelationship. Most obviously, the films fall into two pairs, the first two (The Small Town, Clouds of May) set in the country, the two more recent ones concerned with city life and set in Istanbul, either entirely (Distant) or centrally (Climates). The first two are centered on the family, the second pair on the couple. Clouds of May and Distant are, in turn, connected by a reversal: In the former, a city man revisits the country of his childhood; in the latter, a countryman moves to the city.

The first three films are also connected by the presence of two actors—Muzaffer Özdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak—who become increasingly essential to the films’ worlds. Özdemir has a brief appearance in the opening sequence of The Small Town as a mentally handicapped man laughed at by the village children when he falls in the snow; he plays the central character in Clouds of May (the son, now a documentary filmmaker, who returns from the city to film his parents); and he costars (in what is in obvious ways a continuance of the same role, cast in a decidedly less sympathetic light) with Toprak in Distant. Toprak, for his part, has a leading role in all three films, always playing a countryman. In the first two he feels trapped in the narrowness and stagnation of village life and determines to leave, a desire realized in Distant, in which he comes to live in Istanbul with his relative the documentarian.

The films neither sentimentalize the country nor glorify the city. The characters are presented both sympathetically and critically. If the first three films are strikingly male-centered, this is amply compensated for by Climates. But what is so striking about the four films is that there are no “happy endings”: No one, in any of the films, gets what he or she wants, and this pervasive lack is very closely tied both to social conditions and to the possibility of some deeper, all-pervasive and fundamental unsatisfactoriness in the realities of human existence, a kind of existential malaise. The films, then, might be said to explore that gray area where the social merges with the existential. And for this reason Ozu’s (or screenwriter Kogo Noda’s?) famous exchange came to seem, for all the distance of time and place, a productive way to open this essay, an exploratory consideration of a great new filmmaker: Are we unhappy because of specific social conditions, Ceylan repeatedly asks, or because of some deeper, less definable unsatisfactoriness in the very foundations of human existence?

In The Small Town, Ceylan introduces us to rural Turkey (not, fundamentally, much unlike rural America) with a sequence of stationary shots of snowy streets, the local mosque, parked trucks, and stray dogs, during which we come to hear children declaiming, at first offscreen, “. . . respect my elders . . . love my homeland.” Finally, we see the children outside the school door reciting their daily litany before they are let in from the cold—“My ideal is to rise, to progress. . . . I surrender my being to that of Turkey. . . . Happy is he who is a Turk”—a shot Ceylan intercuts with further views of the town and studies of young men (including our protagonist, played by Toprak) listening, perhaps remembering their own school days, and they do not look altogether happy. In the classroom, the children have to speak a communal and automatic “thank-you” when the teacher enters and says good morning. He looks, if anything, embarrassed and seems to have little inclination to teach. That duty is passed on to his pupils. A child is instructed to read “today’s passage” aloud: It is entitled “Love and Loyalty Within the Family” and comprises all the expected clichés. The children are being taught (but isn’t this familiar to all of us?) to accept, without question, the dominant ideology, masquerading as “truth.” Ceylan’s debut film (his darkest in both the literal and metaphorical meanings of the word) takes as its subject, in its first ten minutes, the realization that we are trapped in, controlled and belittled by a system (family, nation, religion) that doesn’t work and has never worked. The difference here is that, clearly, no one believes in it, but no one can jettison it: Its “truth” has been embedded by rote. No wonder Mehmet Emin Toprak’s character wants to escape—though it will take him two more films to do so, and, on the whole, he will be disappointed. In the absence of authenticity, a pervasive meanness, almost a resentment of life itself, takes over: Even the young boy Ali (Cihat Bütün) cannot resist the temptation to turn a tortoise on its back and leave it to its certain and prolonged death, although, to do him justice, he does make halfhearted attempts to return and save it, only to be deterred by his family’s rules about domestic duties: Hasn’t his schooling taught him (if nothing much else) to obey his parents?

Clouds of May, in contrast, is clearly the warmest, most “positive,” of Ceylan’s films to date (which is not to say it is unqualifiedly warmhearted and optimistic!), and no doubt this has a great deal to do with his own personal feelings about his parents, who play themselves, with his father (Mehmet Emin Ceylan) as, in effect, the lead actor. It is interesting to juxtapose this beautiful little film with Climates: In Clouds of May the domestic setup works because the woman (Fatma Ceylan) has been brought up to be a wife and mother and not much else (though she is fortunate to have a husband who is clearly content to be the traditional husband and father and ready to accept her opinions on things domestic), whereas Climates is centrally concerned with the marital problems arising out of radical feminism and its consequences.

It is worth noting that, in Clouds of May, with its benign family, the tortoise (the most obvious link back to The Small Town) is allowed by the young boy (again named Ali) to live: We see it, in a patently parallel scene, crawling away into the bushes.

In Clouds of May we again encounter Toprak’s desire to escape to the city and a supposedly more fulfilling life, but the film’s emotional center is clearly Ceylan’s desire to relate to his parents (in whatever way possible, given the distance—not only geographical—between them), his resident star Muzaffer Özdemir standing in for the director. (The film, however fictionalized, demands, I think, this directly personal note, and the parents appear again, briefly, in Climates, this time with Ceylan himself playing their son.) The thematic development has two major intertwining threads: Özdemir’s desire to capture his parents’ lives on film (before it’s too late, and not just because they’re growing old) and the encroachment of capitalism on the countryside, embodied in the central narrative around the government’s threat to cut down a stand of oak trees on the father’s land, which he passionately but ineffectually opposes, relying on written agreements ambiguous in the first place and now perhaps obsolete.

If Ceylan’s first two films suggested that he is essentially a male-centered filmmaker, that suspicion seemed amply confirmed by Distant, built almost exclusively on a male (but decidedly nonsexual) relationship, with women relegated to very minor roles as occasional lovers or casual pickups. (Such an assumption is dramatically corrected by Climates.) Ceylan’s third feature is a strong, intelligent probing into masculinity and the male ego, as Yusuf and Mahmut, country mouse and town mouse (played, respectively, by Toprak and Özdemir), try to negotiate the sharing of Mahmut’s apartment in Istanbul, until Yusuf can find a job (about which he appears to have had overly optimistic expectations), revealing increasingly divergent attitudes toward such household necessities as compatibility, neatness, and privacy (they can’t even agree on how best to kill a mouse). Certainly Distant is the most polished of Ceylan’s first three films—the kind that gets one into festivals—marvelously acted by the director’s two perennial stars, one of whom (Toprak) was to die in an accident within weeks of the completion of filming. It’s a precise, distinguished work. It’s also something of a puzzle in the director’s oeuvre so far. Are we or are we not to associate the characters/actors with their roles in the previous films? If the answer is yes, then Özdemir proves far less sympathetic than he had seemed in Clouds of May. But Distant, admirable in itself, did not prepare us for what was to come.

Climates decisively marks a new stage in Ceylan’s development, manifesting a new assurance and force, a more urgent thematic (heterosexual relations since the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s), and in certain respects a startling originality beyond anything that could have been foreseen in the film’s three predecessors. One wonders to what extent his filmmaking was affected by the sudden death of Toprak, who had developed an almost iconic status as a leading player in the previous films. Özdemir is also absent from the cast, the only actors from the earlier films being the director’s parents. It’s as if Ceylan needed to make a complete break.

The major casting is, I believe, unique in the history of the cinema: the director and his wife (Ebru Ceylan) taking the two leading roles. There have, of course, been numerous occasions when a filmmaker has directed his wife (Fellini, Vadim, Welles, Cassavetes), but the only instance I have been able to dredge up from memory of a director directing both his wife and himself, playing a couple, is found in Claude Chabrol’s episode in the New Wave portmanteau film Paris vu par . . .(1965), and there Chabrol and Stéphane Audran are very obviously playing (hilariously, and ultimately devastatingly) a typical pair of Chabrolian bourgeois grotesques: We know they are acting. The inwardness and complexity of the husband-and-wife performances in Climates are going to have a great many spectators speculating as to whether the film is built upon personal experience, perhaps assuming that director and star are playing “themselves,” and even speculating about how soon to expect the real-life relationship to break up. My own reaction (aside from celebrating the couple’s extraordinary courage) is more complex: I can’t believe that they could make a film so poised, so totally lacking in any aura of sensationalism or public self-flagellation, in which the problems of male/female relations in our contemporary cultural situation are so inwardly analyzed, without having experienced them, to some extent, themselves, and been able to pass beyond that to self- awareness. I can’t think of another film as intelligent, as subtle, or as devastating in its sensitivity to the problems of heterosexual relationships in the postfeminist era.

The feminist movement’s call for equality and recognition has left many women more dissatisfied than ever, precisely because of men’s failure to catch up and readjust, and that is the very basis of Ceylan’s film, which is unequivocally on the woman’s side. The scene, near the beginning of Climates, of two couples—including the film’s protagonists, Isa and Bahar (Nuri and Ebru Ceylan)—dining al fresco at night dramatizes this with marvelous precision and economy: The men talk of their work, the hostess is sent to make coffee, and Bahar is belittled and largely ignored (with the sole casual query as to what film she’s working on quickly passed over, exactly as she knows it will be). Although she is absent for the entire middle third of the film, it begins and ends with her alone, and it is the man who is consistently discredited: The best one can say for him is that he knows not what he does—except that he should know. For a director to cast and direct himself in such a role can be construed only as an act of heroism.

In fact, the nucleus from which the film expands and develops is contained in the first sequence of ten shots, unequally divided between husband and wife, the first and last being close-ups of Bahar: Isa studies and photographs ancient ruins, Bahar watches, walks away, climbs a hill, sits, looks on from a distance. The ruins (when we see them in long shot) are the remaining pillars of a palace or monument, but, most strikingly, a display of ruined phalli—a marvelous metaphor for the film’s subject matter. Throughout the sequence Isa makes no attempt to involve his wife in his work; he does, once, ask her if she’s bored (which she dutifully denies), but it’s just a formality. How could she be bored when he is furthering his university career through research (he is a professor who has never managed to complete his Ph.D.)? The final shot of the sequence, a static close-up, is held for nearly two and a half minutes. In the previous shot Bahar has watched her husband, dwindled by extreme long shot to a tiny manikin in the distance, slip, fall down, get up, dust himself off, look up at her very far away on the hill, and shrug with one of those “Well, everyone falls down sometimes” gestures, intended as comic and endearing. During the long take the woman’s face undergoes a whole range of expression, first suggesting affection (because he’s suddenly vulnerable?—it is perhaps the nearest they come in the entire film to some kind of intimacy, hundreds of yards apart). But her face quickly sets, the troubled look returns. In the background, green trees dot the hill: We may recall the traditional oppositions—nature/culture, passive/active, man as looker/woman as looked at—that have invariably left women holding the short straw. Bahar’s face goes on to register disillusionment, resentment, anger, regret, despair. The actress’s extraordinary performance, the camera registering her every slight shift of expression, may be said to encapsulate the whole film. I shall refrain from insulting her by suggesting she receive the “best actress” Oscar at the Academy Awards next year. Her performance goes far beyond such commercial trivia.

“The end answers the beginning”: the cardinal rule of fiction. The movement in Climates is from incipient separation to final and irremediable breakup, from the hot, parched landscape of the opening to the bleak snowscape of the last sequence, and from Isa’s work to Bahar’s (she is the art director on a film being shot on location). Climates’s two final sequences suggest that, although it is Isa who seems to desire reconciliation most—even if he is the one who has made it impossible—Bahar is the one most deeply hurt. Perhaps the film’s most devastating moment (it has several rivals!) is Isa’s reaction, in the hotel room in the early morning, when Bahar exposes herself to him emotionally by telling him her dream, innocently believing that there has been change, that he is ready to share her sudden delight. The dream is archetypally Freudian, a dream of flying, signifying empowerment, and she narrates it with touching pride, openness, vulnerability, believing that he will at last understand her needs as a responsible and intelligent human being. First he asks her when she has to be on set in the morning, then he offers to take her out to breakfast before his flight. She knows at once that the relationship is over. It is clear that, for all his protests of “needing” her, he has learned precisely nothing.

Climates marks the transformation of an interesting director into a great one. The stylistic strategies of Ceylan’s early films here reach their fulfillment, his command establishing itself most notably in his preference for very long (often static) takes, allowing the actors to negotiate a remarkable range of emotions and responses, every subtle nuance of expression conveying meaning. At one extreme is the close-up of Bahar on the hillside in the opening sequence, described above. At the other is the already notorious violent sex scene between Isa and his old flame Serap (Nazan Kesal). When the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, one local reviewer found it “hilarious”; I found it complex and disturbing. It seems to invite a panoply of responses, but essentially it constitutes a further variation on the theme of male dominance. Serap has let Isa into her apartment (leaving the door unlocked) only after some hesitation. Seated with him on the sofa, she is clearly trying to establish control of the situation: sex as she wants it. Isa takes this as a challenge to his manhood and wrestles her to the floor. She struggles, he overpowers her: There are many moments when it looks more like a rape than an act of love. However, “tough cookie” that she is, she surrenders and perhaps even enjoys it (when they next meet she appears ready for more, and it is he who backs out). The whole battle, in its various phases, is shot without a cut. Perhaps the most remarkable scene of all is the very long static shot of Isa and Bahar, toward the end of the film, in the backseats of the film company bus as he tries to persuade her that he’s changed, that things will be different, that they can really relate: She asks him if he’s seen Serap; he hesitates before saying “No,” just long enough for her to know he’s lying, those few seconds of silence changing the outcome of the meeting. She rejects him and, as he leaves the bus, she begins to laugh. Again, the fixed camera allows the spectator to follow every nuance, every small detail of expression or intonation. This may be the film’s finest moment, but every sequence testifies to the presence of a major filmmaker, a director now fully in command of his art.

Robin Wood is the author of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond (1985), Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998), and Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (2002; all Columbia University Press).