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Tropical Cyclogenesis in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (2006) February 6, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Turkish.
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Original Title: Iklimler
Written and directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Nazan Kesal
FIPRESCI Prize, 2006 Cannes Film Festival

The most recent among the films included in the Ten Best Turkish Films of all time, Uzak (Distant) establishes Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of contemporary cinema’s most interesting storytellers and places himself along with Tsai Ming-Liang, Tran Anh Hung, Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Hirokazu Kore-eda as Asian Cinema’s fireball filmmakers, whose minimalism is derived from an aching continental epidemic characterised by a beguiling sense of beauty and style. Uzak is not only a revelation on Ceylan’s part, who already has the majestic Clouds of May under his belt, but it also sparks interest among ordinary people to look at Turkey’s cultural side. It is undoubtedy the most striking work in the 2002 Cannes Film Festival line-up, even more striking than Gus Van Sant’s Elephant which won the Palme d’Or, and immediately catapults Ceylan’s status from simple to aristocratic. I had frostbite after seeing Uzak in Cinemanila almost five years ago, which led me to believe that it was the most moving film ever made, and this was during the phase of my life when I just started watching films and letting them eat me whole. The serenity of its atmosphere, the avalanche of emotions, and the staggering silence and alienation that separate the two characters, plus the tragic death of Mehmet Emin Toprak shortly after the film was finished, always remind me of afterlife. Four years after its release, Ceylan completed his follow-up to Uzak, again in his trademark picturesque shots and sparse dialogue; and in that same year, Orhan Pamuk became the first Turkish to win the Nobel Prize.

The comparison to Antonioni in Climates is quite justifiable; perhaps the closest that I can think of to associate Antonioni’s elements to Ceylan’s, aside from alienation as a common theme among their films, is the narrative of Climates having emotional similarities to L’Eclisse. It starts with an unlikely break-up of an urban couple, Isa and Bahar (played on-screen by Ceylan and his wife Ebru), during their stay on the coast for a summer vacation. The bile that triggers between them roots deeply up to their intestines, as if both of them are so fed up with each other but no one wants to make the move to express it — prolonging it even more is torture. The sequence that shows Isa’s admission is an astonishing thirty-second trickery: Isa speaks, then cuts to a shot of Bahar walking down the beach; the next time he speaks to confess his need for separation, he moves his body sideways, and Bahar is revealed beside him. On their way back while riding a motorcycle, Bahar blocks Isa’s vision, covering his eyes until they fall on the ground. Bahar’s hysteria while Isa continues shouting pollutes the empty space between them — them is now over — and the anxiety she feels overflows from its peak as she travels back to Istanbul, alone.

Ceylan’s use of slow-motion and overt change of apertures in some of his scenes complement his inimitable style. In addition, his willingness to compromise and play tricks he hasn’t done before in his previous films is admirable. For instance, when Bahar visits Isa in his hotel room before he goes back to the city, the blurring and the conscious shift of focus suggest the overwhelming intimacy they shared that night — perhaps the only time they share space in silence and agreement — but when she wakes up the next morning and tells Isa her beautiful dream about seeing her mother, the happiness she feels turns to disappointment when Isa looks very disinterested in listening to her. The space between them, in which the night before easily restored their relationship, is now moving them apart. Watching it twice, I realise that this is a not a story about Isa and Bahar — instead, Climates is about Isa, his self-serving nature, his dishonesty, his lack of social commitment, and his moral cruelty reminiscent of Bergman’s ailing characters. Ceylan does not intend to gain sympathy for him; in fact, I despise him when he lies to Bahar when she asked if he went to see Serap when they were separated. He is weak and stale, thinking only of himself, and it seems that here, Ceylan is depicting a persona of the modern man — the man of the 21st century — whose virtues are now buried underground, along with the lost souls in the purgatory and the decaying bodies of the poor.

The extended scenes of sexual struggle with Serap, otherwise known as rape with consent (as could be inferred in the succeeding scene), perfectly depict Isa’s violent character, violent not in the way that we are familiar with but rather offbeat — as his inner violence causes him the agony of not finding the happiness he is looking for. Isa is diplomatic but he lacks the courage to stand by his decisions. He could travel all the way from the city to the countryside just to win her back but he easily gives up whenever he sees a ray of hopelessness, of hesitation in Bahar’s eyes. He wants her but he isn’t willing to fight for her — and he would rather lie to save himself than look unfaithful. He is perhaps the severe, tragic case of the modern man in Ceylan’s eyes.

It’s fun to do some comparisons, as Climates very much reminds me of Tsai Ming-Liang’s The River for two reasons: first, the neck pain that their main characters had; and second, the film crew in the end. These strange narrative similarities incite mythic questioning, like in those Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews we grew up with: have Tsai and Ceylan met? (have Tarkovsky and Bergman ever spoken to each other in person?) If yes, what did they talk about? What do they think of the world ten years from now? Are their films precautionary tales of the future? The mirroring and dislocation really get into me in extremes.

At the center of the film is Ceylan himself — Ceylan the director, writer, and actor — who brings to life the infinite sadness of a highly modernised world and uses his nation as a metaphor of illusion, the same way Tsai does to Taiwan, the disorienting realities of urban living and the way long-term globalisation affects culture and lifestyle, the inconsistent claws of economic drainage and promissory notes of employment. When Bahar hears the sound of the plane carrying Isa back to Istanbul, her face and eyes are embraced by cubes of grief, and the snow continues to fall slowly, slow as ever, as if it is waiting until it fills all the meadows and fields and spaces on earth with snow, with coldness, with stoicism; but the huge feat that Ceylan manages to film in Climates is capturing the varying degrees of its seasons: from the scorching summer heat, to the drizzly autumn rain, and finally to the breathtaking winter snow — when the littlest of things speak volumes, and when life means death — the earthquake of immobility that shakes one’s self, and it makes you realise that Isa and Bahar are not people but things; in a world populated by too much spaces we continue to build, we are not much different from those pieces of furniture waiting for upholstery, soiled and decaying, termite-filled. * * * * *

Ceylan is a photographer by profession. See his wonderful portfolio of photographs here.

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