Actresses and Genres: The Victory of Meltem Cumbul By Kirill Razlogov

in 17th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Kirill Razlogov

This year Oscar’s pre-selection of foreign language films has been particularly rich in excellent female performances. The diversity of film genres and national traditions made it almost impossible to compare the qualities of actresses and their interpretations. The aesthetic extremes could be symbolized by two outstanding films The Child (L’Enfant) by the Dardenne brothers from Belgium and The Ruins (Rusevine) by Janez Burger from Slovenia.

In the first, Deborah Francois portrays a childish girl with such a poignant feeling of reality that you cannot help asking yourself – is she acting or just being herself? She reminded me of a famous polemic surrounding the provocative Russian perestroika film Little Vera (Malen’kaya Vera). Natalia Negoda played a suburban teenager with such intensity that most of the spectators (and critics) were sure that she was just natural. I remember making the actress’s case at a young actors’ festival in Geneva by just presenting Natalia to the public – a sophisticated specimen of Moscow intelligentsia and the opposite of her fictional character. Similarly, you can judge Francois’ acting qualities when she shows her heroine’s becoming a mature and responsible woman in a matter of seconds.

Natasa Burger in The Ruins, on the contrary, is acting in a theatrical manner on several levels. On screen, she is almost herself – an actress on the verge of divorce from her husband-director – but every movement, mimic and words show a resourceful impersonation of a fictional character, playing games with whatever reality there is. The film itself is an over-the-top satire of the theatrical milieu and a society under forceful transformation. Burger perfectly adopts the same style, culminating in a stage performance of such grotesqueness that all the rest seems almost realistic by contrast.

The more exotic the setting, the less easy one feels judging. In the case of young Shadi Variani in Requiem of Snow (Marsiyeh Barf), a traditional Oriental melodrama in Iraqi Kurdistan, is it outstanding acting or just the girl? Is the brilliant Cecilia Cheung missing the psychological motivations or just following the rules of the Martial Arts films in The Promise (Wu ji) (also known as The Master of the Crimson Armor) by Chen Kaige?

I remember the great Russian theatrical actress Alla Demidova explaining to students that contemporary actors more or less influenced by Stanislavsky’s theories are unable to play genuine Greek tragedy which is devoid of the psychological dimension that dominates the modern stage. Cecilia Cheung succeeds in doing something similar in a different cultural tradition. It does not mean that acting realism disappeared from the screen. Several outstanding performances (some of them having won awards at major film festivals) followed this tradition: Julia Jentsch in Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (Sophie Scholl – Die Letzten Tage), Vessela Kazakova in Stolen Eyes (Otkradnati Ochi), Evelyn Kaplun in What a Wonderful Place (Eize Makom Nifla), Annika Hallin in Kissed by Winter (Vinterkyss).

The FIPRESCI award went to the perfect marriage between a genre and a national tradition (Turkish screen melodrama) and the performance of Meltem Cumbul in Lovelorn (Gonul Yarasi). The Turkish star presented her film to the audience in Palm Springs as a perfect American – in jeans and sneakers, speaking English almost with a local accent. On screen she was clearly a diva playing a poor singer-hostess and beaten wife desperately in love with an elderly retired teacher-turned-taxi driver (Sener Sen). Her acting technique and screen presence were at least equal to those of her famous partner, Sen.

Singer, TV-host, soap opera star and powerful dramatic actress, Meltem Cumbul combined in a single performance her multiple talents and created a memorable character in the framework of a specific genre, national by its roots but universally appealing.