Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Climates"

A Battle of the Sun and Clouds

In "Climates", the formal aspects recall Angelopoulos, the themes Bergmann and Antonioni. But is Nuri Bilge Ceylan really on par with cinema's greatest directors? Amin Farzanefar takes a look at the aesthetic realm in the films of the Turkish director

​​The word "Iklimler", the original Turkish title of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film, doesn't really mean "climates" but rather "weather conditions." And Ceylan's film is in fact a journey through different light and atmospheric conditions. The story begins in the heat of summer amidst the ruins of Kas and ends with a snow flurry in the Anatolian mountains.

The weather serves as Ceylan's metaphor for the emotional state of his characters. But just as the weather forecast is unreliable, so is predicting the mood of his protagonist Isa, an art historian, whom we see grumbling to himself one minute and with a glowing smile the next.

We have no way of knowing what is going on inside him – nor does he seem to know – as he lies silently next to his girlfriend Bahar on the beach and breaks up with her, only to pursue her again for months.

Internal drama

"Iklimler" exposes the abyss surrounding a man who never gets what he wants because he doesn't know what he wants. Worse still: he is not even aware of his plight. His internal drama is thus the same one that tortures his girlfriend.

No way of knowing what is going on inside: Isa and his girlfriend Bahar on the shimmering beach

​​The film's structure emphasizes the inconstancy and vagueness of Isa's character: a roll of thunder, the patter of rain and other sounds from nature are edited into a soundscape that has an almost unconscious impact. But it is Ceylan's cinematography that fascinates the viewer most, particularly when seen on the big screen.

The filmmaker uses cinematic space to characterize his figures in a single take, for example the scene of the couple in a hotel room. As Isa is lying on the bed and then lays his head down in an open drawer in an attempt to relieve tension, he remains in the dark, his head boxed in. Bahar, on the other hand, is seen coming in from the balcony in the background, entering a light-filled space in the room.

Ceylan often works with foregrounds and backgrounds, in sharp focus and blurred, close-ups and long shots. His landscapes are spectacular, often with the sun and clouds in an apparent battle.

Abysmal undercurrents

But the beauty of these landscapes is often deceptive, seeming to refer to something else, something abysmal: power struggles, the desire to conquer, refusal, uncertainty and doubt.

These undercurrents give "Climates" a haunting intensity – one that comes through as particularly direct and violent in a near rape scene in which Isa tries to win back an ex-girlfriend. Just when he has her under his spell again, he loses interest once more and begins looking for Bahar again.

This type of film doesn't usually do well in Turkish cinemas, which are dominated by Hollywood and mainstream films. Ceylan has always made his films on a shoe-string budget and maintains control over them as much as possible, including the script, direction, camera, editing and production.

The director's mom as leading actress

His first three films – a trilogy – were made in this auteur style. "Kasaba," his first feature film that won several awards, was a portrait of a small town. The second entitled "Clouds of May" was about a director named Muzaffer who wants to make the film "Kasaba" in that same town.

photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons
Turkey's number one arthouse director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

​​The fictional director Muzaffer wanted his parents to play two of the roles – these were, of course, played by Ceylan's parents, who often appear alongside other relatives in his films.

"Uzak," which won the Golden Palm in Cannes, transplanted some of these characters to the city in order to tell a tale about migration and urbanization. These kinds of cross-references and film-within-a-film structures hark back to one of Ceylan's favorite directors, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who also inspired some of his themes and naturalistic symbols.

In "Climates," more influences become apparent: the formal aspects recall Angelopoulos, the themes Bergmann and Antonioni. But while these directors often created their most impressive works by taking up the perspectives of women, Ceylan prefers male protagonists.

Negative stereotype of the traditional "Oriental"

Although his men have creative professions – they are photographers, filmmakers, art teachers – they always seem to embody a negative stereotype of the traditional "Oriental": egocentric, resistant to change, incapable of love, cowardly. Only in the small towns does life retain some semblance of order – as we see in the "Kasaba" trilogy.

Ceylan's character studies seem to have a weakness, however. His male figures quickly appear wholly disagreeable, their obsessions and compulsions are too construed and one-sided. The director seems to lack the necessary distance to his characters, and the fact that he denies them any development is irritating.

And further: In these times of great change in Turkey, it is astounding that Ceylan chooses to remove his stories from a social context, taking refuge in the aesthetic realm. Orhan Pamuk has provided a model of how one can retreat in times of crisis and resist political instrumentalization, and yet maintain a standpoint. And the old masters noted above practiced a form of "inner emigration," yet their existential portraits were also infused with the zeitgeist.

The suspicion arises that Nuri Bilge Ceylan, with all his visual brilliance, primarily makes festival films – beautiful, but more invested in the world of art than in life itself.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2007

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

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