Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Turkey / France, 2006
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 09 November 2006
Source Zeitgeist Films DVD screener
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
As an actor-director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has surprisingly few precedents. Most directors will only cast themselves in starring roles as a form of perverse self-caricature, as a way of mounting lacerating assaults on their own image by making themselves out to be lecherous (Woody Allen), decrepit (Clint Eastwood), feckless (Warren Beatty), or pathetic and crazy (Vincent Gallo). Even Orson Welles, the old granddad of macho, high-profile actor-directors, had the good taste to recede behind an array of putty noses and wasn’t averse to the occasional, self-abasing fat joke. But unlike most major actor-directors, Ceylan doesn’t seem content with simple self-deprecation.
So, if actor-directors seem, in principal, to be the height of masculine auteurist egomania, it’s a little surprising that so few of them actually embrace the stereotype and reward themselves with better roles. But in his new film Climates, Ceylan presents himself as an exception to this. If he has any forebear at all among actor-directors, it would be John Cassavetes, an actor-director with supreme confidence in his ability to wear both hats comfortably. What Ceylan achieves in Climates is similar to Cassavetes’ achievements as simultaneous auteur and star: a film as impressive for its control, its equanimity, and its display of craft as it is swaggering in its narcissism.
But for Ceylan as for Cassavetes, this is less about a vanity-project self-mythologization as it is about creating complex, fully realized characters. Like any of Cassavetes’ lead roles, Ceylan’s Isa in Climates is boorish and repellent, admirable only in his stubborn resolve, his physical power, and occasional flashes of absurdity and pathos. Similarly, he’s equal parts dashing and frumpy, with a square jaw and an uncanny resemblance to Tony Leung, tempered by the grayness of middle age and a dash of Fred Ward. Isa is, as we discover, a complex, dissatisfied, restless, and mercurial character, and, whether or not he resembles the director himself, Ceylan inhabits him admirably.
And like Cassavetes, Ceylan also knows when to defer to his leading lady. The film is bookended with shots of his wife and co-star, Ebru Ceylan, as Isa’s sometime girlfriend Bahar, and it is partly through her that his character is framed. We first meet the couple while they are on a Mediterranean beach vacation together. Isa, a university teacher of archaeology and doctoral candidate, is using part of his vacation to study some local ruins, as Bahar sits impatiently by, contemplating the similarly crumbling state of their relationship. The couple seems to be attempting to repair their love after Isa’s confession of a dalliance with an old girlfriend, Serap, but most of their time is spent lying prone on beaches or otherwise silently distracted by the business of being on holiday. In the face of Isa’s stodgy taciturnity, Bahar can only counter with hysteria. Half-heartedly attempting to kill both of them while riding on a motorcycle, she ultimately forces an abrupt end to both their vacation and their relationship.
Segueing from the sun-drenched Mediterranean to a wet and cold Istanbul, the film follows Isa, and not Bahar, as he perfunctorily resumes his teaching position. Chancing upon Serap and her new boyfriend in a bookshop, Isa decides to rekindle and rebound with a late-night housecall. Once Isa has stalked Serap to her home, the two exchange smoldering glances and tense, antagonistic conversation. Inching closer and closer to either sex or murder, Isa suddenly pounces on Serap, and in a pair of lengthy takes that are at once erotically troubling and troublingly erotic, the two engage in some forced-then-consensual intercourse.
This central scene, placed in the second of the film’s three acts, is the keystone to Ceylan’s performance, revising the exasperated and aloof character of the first part of the film as a desperate and rather dangerous man. A large part of the film’s intent (and that of its rather metaleptical title) is to suggest that the personalities of individuals are constantly in motion, subject to the influences of circumstances and their environment. Leaden and nonchalant in the first act, blistering and animal in the next, Isa softens into a gentle, rather pathetic melancholia in the film’s final episode. Hearing of Bahar’s move to the snow-swept East of Turkey, Isa tracks his former lover to a small, wintry village on the thin pretext of seeking out more ruins in the region. What he finds is a woman as equivocal as himself: though she is initially dismayed to see the man she once loved, Bahar’s loneliness and pity for Isa’s apparent humility prompt to reconsider their future.
But Ceylan’s film is not one of certainties, of true love, or of easy resolutions. As indicated by the film’s epitaph, the director has dedicated Climates to his son, and so the film takes on the aspect of a lesson or a piece of fatherly advice: Relationships are difficult. More often than not, they are preserved to validate or sustain the individual’s sense of identity, rather than serve a shared cause or ideal, and in an effort to salvage this sense of self, individuals (especially men) can be alternately dashing, ludicrous, frightening, and pitifully weak. Ultimately, the film does not strive for a universality of emotion, but rather treats its characters as the sort of wildly unpredictable individuals we might encounter in real life, persons signifying something neither larger nor smaller than themselves. They are familiarly troubled, uncertain, unhinged, pathetic, and unpredictable, but they nonetheless retain an idiosyncrasy that is palpable and, better yet, wholly credible. And this is probably why Ceylan’s lead performance — and his faith in his own ability to provide it — works so well: it is neither a pose nor a cry for acceptance nor an apology. It’s simply a sensitive reading of a very complex, very human character.