Still Distant, With All Those Close-Ups

in 59th Cannes Film Festival

by Esin Kücüktepepinar

Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s cinema studies alienation through mainly minimalist means. Since Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi) and Distant (Uzak), which won the Grand Prix and a double prize for Best Actor at Cannes, the most conspicuous trait that makes him an auteur is his personal touch. Emotional distances filled in with long silences and uncertainties on faces in close-ups, supported by beautifully shot landscapes, are his trademarks. With a poetic, yet almost painfully honest approach, he passionately continues depicting the complexity of the human soul and its divine dilemmas. His talent is often comparable to great directors such as Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, Tarkovsky and he clearly emphasizes the motto “less is more.”

His fourth and latest film shot in HD digital video, Climates (Iklimler), also tells of the intricacy of the human psyche by way of a couple on the brink of separation. Resembling Distant, which focused on two male relatives, Climates studies the relationships between men and women. With the same style and existentialist approach along with a thinner storyline, he delicately manages to walk about in dangerous fields of the human heart.

This time, the director is both in front of and behind the camera. He stars as the lead with Ebru Ceylan (his wife in real life) and Nazan Kesal, two actresses who had already appeared in small parts in his previous pictures. The Ceylans’ performances are more than satisfying, and the director himself as the focal character of the film especially deserves most of the attention.

Climates is simply a close-up on a couple in crisis: Isa (played by the director) is a middle-aged university professor, and his young girlfriend Bahar (Ebru Ceylan) is a TV art director. As the title suggests, the film takes place during three seasons (hot summer, rainy autumn and snowy winter), and these meteorological changes symbolise the different mood and states of the couple’s relationship. (For those who might wonder about the missing season, Ceylan includes this by naming the wife Bahar, which means “Spring” in Turkish. Isa, by the way, means “Jesus.”)

The film begins with the couple on vacation in Kas, a favourite tourist resort on the southern Turkish coast, replete with historical sites. On this hot summer day, while Isa busies himself with photographing the ruins, she seems to have nothing else to do but accompany him. And next, in a single take, we see her gaze at the view and she starts to cry in a most delicate way. Followed by the opening credits, this scene gives the viewer a voyeuristic role, which includes an intimate journey to a human heart. It is also possible to argue that the bee that Isa notices as he lazily lies amidst the ruins and which later lands on Bahar’s hair as she cries, stands for the couple’s souls that do not touch one another anymore. At the same time, this scene is a clear notification that there’s very little in the script that gives much away about the characters and the reasons for the emotional distance in their relationship. Later that evening at the dinner table with Isa’s friends, we observe that Bahar is not naïve, as she exposes her unhappiness by her passive-aggressive behaviour matching Isa’s. Resisting traditional formulas, director Ceylan does not give much clue about their past or what happened earlier between them. Instead, in a subtle way, he slowly leads us to the heart of a broken relationship. The following day at the beach, in a magnificently detailed scene, it’s obvious that she feels very much drowned in this affair, but he is the first one to verbally try to end it, and suggest they remain friends. Friends? Devastated, but still proud to cry out for love, Bahar’s startling manner during the motorbike ride perfectly dramatizes the reaction to any break-up’s unbearable cruelty, and she ends up returning back home to Istanbul on her own.

In Climates’ second part, set in Istanbul during the rainy days of autumn, Isa runs into Serap (Nazan Kesal), with whom he had an affair in the past. He stalks Serap, who actually is involved with a friend of his, and waits outside her house. After Serap takes him in, we get a hint at Isa’s self-centred character through his reaction to her initially somewhat distant stance and flirtatious reproaches. Yet, it is virtually impossible to be prepared at what awaits us. In a perfectly choreographed single take, the banality of a rough sex scene between them exposes not only Isa’s general frustration of his inner self but also the director’s intention to show the much less attractive side of casual human behaviour. This painfully honest approach is shocking to the viewer while it entertains with its perfectly absorbed wit. (Any more nuts?) More witty moments resurface in a later occasion that concerns the pair in a more affectionate way, when Serap wants to make love but Isa’s already got cold feet after learning from her that Bahar has left Istanbul to work on a TV series shot in snowy, mountainous eastern Turkey. He tries to avoid having sex and excuses himself from her with a TV story about an earthquake, which is pathetically ironic. On the other hand, these scenes emphasise that the story is in favour of Isa rather than the two women. Of course, Ceylan told men’s story previously in Clouds of May and Distant, in which female characters are sidekicks of the stories. However, with her heavy make-up and her attitude, Serap, who tends to embrace Isa for the way he is and who is portrayed as a frivolous woman rather than someone open to be seduced by him, jolts and pushes the tactful balancing of the director’s approach as an excessively underlined alternative to Bahar.

Enhancing the dilemma of solitary and desolate souls in social and economic environments similar to Distant, Ceylan presents a further minimalist story in Climates. However, he misses the target with his protagonist’s relationship with a male colleague at the university where he teaches. Although their conversation sequences, apart from being simple transitions in the Autumn section, aim at accentuating the triviality of daily routine as an exemplar of ordinary “buddy talk”, they create a hiatus in the poetic narration’s continuity, failing to create a lasting effect on the film as a whole or as a gag.

Climates’ final part is the most spectacular and glorious cinematic experience of all. Isa is now in a small town called Agri, drowned in snowy winter, looking for Bahar. Once again, we are not sure what his main motive is for being there. Does he love Bahar? Or is it a power struggle? Because she seems to have moved on, as a stronger figure than before in the film, could it all be about him challenging the idea that he could still have her? None of these matter. Director Ceylan skillfully creates the final climate between the two protagonists, and their last (or not) decision in their relationship. The marvellous scene in the minibus, both heartbreaking and hilariously witty, is one of the great trademarks of Ceylan’s cinematic ability in minimalist storytelling. After all close-ups, the stillness of the emotional distance deeply moves us and remains in our hearts.