Does acclaimed Turkish film deserve chillier reception?

By Matt Zakosek

One of the least useful accusations that can be hurled at a film is that it is boring. “Is boredom anything less than the sense of one’s faculties slowly dying?” the novelist John Berger once asked. In recent years, I’ve defended Whale Rider and Lost in Translation against those whom—I’ll admit—I thought to be lacking in certain inner faculties. The films weren’t the problem for those viewers; it was their minds.

Mea culpa. Into theaters marches Iklimler (Climates), a universally adored film by critics’ darling Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes (meant “to promote film-art and to encourage new and young cinema”) and was nominated for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor. It screened to rapturous audiences in Toronto, New York, Paris, and especially its native Istanbul. It is considered one of the most important cinematic works to emerge from Turkey.

And it bored me to tears.

In my eyes, Climates seems like the worst kind of vanity project—a drama starring the director and his wife, allegedly paralleling their real-life relationship. The petty jealousy, tedium, and generational differences of any May-December romance are presented with documentary-like realism, but why should anyone but the lovers involved concern themselves with the minutiae?

The director stars as Isa, a self-absorbed professor who is married to TV executive Bahar. The film begins with a long, meandering segment of the couple on vacation. Bahar feels left out as Isa snaps photos of the ruins and generally ignores her. Ceylan’s camera lingers on her for an interminable period of time, and somewhere around the two-minute mark, silent tears start rolling down her cheeks.

It sounds poignant, but something’s missing. We don’t know enough about these characters to care why Bahar’s crying. Ceylan’s characters are patently unlikable (which many critics have lauded as a “brave” choice), but with so few expository details, he banks on their supposed ordinariness to earn his audience’s empathy.

In fact, Isa is an obnoxious jerk, and Bahar is a passive-aggressive child. In one of the last interesting scenes of the film (occurring, unfortunately, as we approach the 10-minute mark), she covers Isa’s eyes as he steers a motorcycle. This impulsive, dangerous act risks both of their lives, as Bahar is seated on the back of the bike.

But if Bahar is truly suicidal, as opposed to simply expressing dissatisfaction with their relationship, that side of her is never explored. In the most predictable, sexist manner possible, she exists primarily as Isa’s love interest, disappearing from the story when he takes up with an old flame, Serap (Nazan Kirilmis).

The danger of casting one’s family, of course, is that the audience will fail to share the adoration the director lavishes upon his loved ones. Occasionally, it works. Rachel Weisz (a.k.a. Mrs. Darren Aronofsky) was chillingly effective in her husband’s science-fiction fantasy The Fountain. Then again, Weisz was already a movie star, with the meaty roles (About a Boy, The Constant Gardener) to prove it.

Though the press materials describe her as “luminous,” the female Ceylan lacks the screen presence of a Scarlett Johansson or a Keisha Castle-Hughes, who starred in those other recent “boring” films. Watching her as Bahar is akin to seeing Jennifer Schwalbach in Jersey Girl and Clerks II; her performance is passable, but you know she would’ve never gotten the part if she wasn’t schtupping the director. (And those unflattering orange and black pants she favors don’t improve the situation).

As Isa, the director’s performance is only nominally better. He aims for aloofness but settles for inscrutability. And his graphic love scene with Serap is disturbing both for its casual resemblance to rape and for the prurient reasons the director may have cast himself in such a scene. Of course, Serap’s apparent fondness for rough sex also remains unexplored; her body exists solely as an outlet for her lover’s frustrations. She has the potential to be the film’s most interesting character but instead receives far less screen time than the Ceylans.

We certainly see a lot of the Ceylans. For a sizeable chunk of the film, Ceylan’s camera settles on a shot, and then it sits…and sits…and sits. Extreme long takes can be effective—hypnotic, even—but Ceylan’s images don’t gain additional meaning as we dwell on them. They convey the mundane quality of everyday life all too well. And while Ceylan’s high-definition video certainly holds up to film, for the most part, Climates doesn’t do anything except prove the comparability of the media.

The way Ceylan uses sound is more intriguing than his visuals. An extreme close-up of Isa’s head is accompanied by the bristling sound of him running his fingers through his hair. It’s not a sound to which we are accustomed to hearing—when are foley artists ever that thorough?—and that one, thrilling moment teases at the possibility of video revealing vistas that film cannot.

I’m glad that Climates is one of the first internationally recognized films from Turkey; a few more success stories and the country could experience a cinematic renaissance comparable to Iran’s. But the enthusiasm for Ceylan’s film may, I fear, belie the lack of consistent output from the country rather than its true cinematic quality. I didn’t get it. Maybe I ought to see it a second time.

Or maybe I’m just a philistine. In which case, I should go apologize to a few people who hated Whale Rider.