by Sevin Okyay
In Yesim Ustaoglu’s Clair Obscur (Tereddüt), Sehnaz is a psychiatrist from the big city who is sent to a Black Sea town to work in a hospital. Although her home life with her charismatic husband Cem appears perfect, it becomes obvious that Cem only needs Sehnaz to realize his sexual fantasies. The other woman in this film is Elmas, a child bride who has been brought to the same town, and forced to marry a much older man. Elmas keeps house and looks after her bedridden mother-in- law, in addition to being a slave to her husband’s sexual desires.
Ustaoglu returns with an impressive film about women who are trapped in stories written and staged for them by others. The two central characters are women from different backgrounds who are imprisoned in marriages which prevent them from governing their own lives. When their paths cross one night, their lives are linked through the problems they share, even though one woman has chosen her relationship while the other has been forced into hers.
This is a film about women, and Ustaoglu’s camera is focused on her two heroines, Sehnaz (Funda Eryigit) and Elmas (Ecem Uzun). However, Ustaoglu has said that she never wanted Clair Obscur to be labelled as a woman’s film, adding that the “film tells us not only about Sehnaz and Elmas, but about Cem, Elmas’ husband, and in fact, all of us.” The director’s statement may be true, but these secondary male characters rouse our interest largely due to the performances of Mehmet Kurtulus, Serkan Keskin and Okan Yalabuk; they are not subject to the in-depth analysis of Sehnaz and Elmas.
In previous films such as Waiting for the Clouds (Bulutlari beklerken, 2003), the director has made use of the wild nature of the Black Sea and of water as an image in general. In Clair Obscur, we are once again witness to the wild waves, rain and storms, which affect the two women and compel them to action.
The lack of fathers is another common theme in Ustaoglu’s work. In Clair Obscur, even though we see Emas’ mother, her father – who by forcing her into this marriage is the real architect of her situation – is never seen. Elmas, who wants to return home, keeps talking about him with her psychiatrist, mostly through dramatic impersonations with her absent mother. Uzun, who delivers a perfect performance, particularly shines in these scenes.
Ustaoglu’s films are deeply concerned with discrimination and otherness, especially in relation to migrants. In Clair Obscur, women are the victims of physical, sexual and psychological violence. While we sympathize with the victims, we also catch glimpses of the world that participates in their victimization. We never lose sight of the society which permits these injustices to occur.
Having premiered at Toronto, Clair Obscur has now received awards from festivals such as Sofia, Kerala, Haifa, Istanbul, Antalya and Flying Broom.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2017