Turkish Tragedy – And Some Delight By Jonas Varsted Kirkegaard
Despite its crushingly convincing portrayal of heartbreak and deceit, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s haunting Climates (Iklimler) plays like a cinematic love letter from a husband to his wife.
Climates is a film with much to recommend it, but its main attraction is actress Ebru Ceylan’s face. Well before the first scene has played out, you realise that this is a face you will not forget in a hurry. She simply has an abundance of that elusive kind of charisma that is a vital component of great cinema. The camera loves her, to quote a phrase, and it probably helps that writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who also plays the male lead) is married to Ebru Ceylan in real life.
Climates tells the story of Bahar (played by Ebru Ceylan), a young woman living in Istanbul with Isa, a considerably older and somewhat taciturn university teacher. Things are not well between them (one small, but unmistakably bad, sign being Isa’s habit of relieving his physical tensions by resting his head in an empty drawer), and while on summer holiday, Barah’s disappointment boils over. She goes to destructive extremes in order to provoke a response from her surly soon-to-be ex-partner. This she gets, and then they go their separate ways.
We then for a while follow Isa as he zestfully pursues new romantic adventures. But as fall turns to winter, Isa’s light-headed sense of liberation wears off and he begins to doubt whether splitting up with Barah was the right thing to do. After a few feeble attempts at self-deception, he decides to try to get back together with her.
Bilge Ceylan introduces us to the couple long after the passion has petered out of their relationship – yet asks us to want for them to regain whatever it was they once had. A bold move that would likely have back-fired had the object of the male protagonist’s desire been any less captivating.
But Ebru Ceylan only needs around fifteen minutes of screen time at the beginning of the film to put her spell on you, to completely convince you that only a fool of the first order would let a love like this slip away. Though Bilge Ceylan’s clever script and assured performance as both actor and director (backed up by a fine supporting cast) keep everything on track during her absence, it hurts to see her go, and your heart skips a beat when she reappears.
In song, Bob Dylan once praised his then-wife Sara Lownds’ beauty as “so easy to look at, so hard to define.” The same is true of Ebru Ceylan. She is enigmatic, to be sure, but not in that exasperating or unintentionally funny art cinema sense. Quite the contrary: Bahar is all flesh and blood, and her contradictory psychological make-up – at once intense and distant, poised and vulnerable, jaded and almost innocent – only serves to make the character more believable. It is a testament to Ebru Ceylan’s awesome powers of (facial) expression that she conveys all these traits with very little dialogue.
But then again, Climates is a film in which what is not being said is at least as significant as what is.
As the title suggests, mood and atmosphere is pivotal to the film. Bilge Ceylan probes the unflattering sides of our romantic lives with a dogged determination not unlike that of John Cassavetes. Only he lets his images and often austere and unfriendly locations do a lot of the talking.
He comes across not so much as a storyteller as an observer. The emotional wallop that this films packs more than indicates that Bilge Ceylan has absolute control over his creation, but he succeeds in giving you the impression that he has not; his reluctance to move his camera and affinity for long takes (some go on for several minutes) suggest that he shares our curiosity as to the fate of the characters. There is a certain amount of truth to this: Bilge Ceylan does not pretend to have all the answers – or even any. As the ending of the film attests, comfort is one of the few things that Climates does not have to offer. Unlike so many relationship films one could think of, it never attempts to simplify matters of the heart.
The title of the film refers to actual climates and the changing of the seasons, which reflect the psychological climates of the characters, that is to say moods and minds that change and keep changing – sometimes very suddenly. It is not always easy – or even possible – to gauge the inner lives of the characters. Bilge Ceylan does not sign-post his dramatic developments, and you sometimes feel that you would have better visibility if caught in a blizzard.
The mood of Climates is, in other words, at least as rife with ambiguity as every-day existence. The complex character of Barah perfectly personifies this, but the film also boasts one of the most protracted and puzzling sex scenes it has ever been my mixed pleasure to watch.
This brings us to Bilge Ceylan’s true master stroke; he has made a film that is at once very sombre and quite funny, bordering on whimsical. To illustrate, let me turn to my favourite moment of the film; the staging of Isa and Bahar’s first meeting after their bitter break-up.
Bahar’s urge to get some distance to Isa and Istanbul has landed her in a virtually depopulated and shabby town where the snowing rarely stops. She sees Isa standing outside in the street, and knows that he could have come to this God-forsaken place for one reason only. She steps outside. Not for nothing is the setting reminiscent of a frontier town; the scene plays out in a way that subtly alludes to a showdown in a western movie. The former lovers stand several meters apart on the street, sizing each other up in stone-faced silence. The tension is practically palpable. Someone is about to get hurt. This moment of pure movie magic might be seen as a visualisation of Leonard Cohen’s darkly humorous line: “All I ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew me.” (and from there one might associate to a film it is not too far-fetched to call a companion piece to Climates, namely McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s elegiac anti-western about doomed love).
Climates is Ebru Ceylan’s film from its first to final frame. Just like her face, it is at once disheartening and deeply fascinating to behold.