Dust and Ashes

In Climates (Ceylan, 2006) art house director Nuri Bilge Ceylan draws a delicate picture of a fractured relationship between two middle class intellectuals.

The film takes place in all weathers, but the emotional climate within the relationship of Isa and Bahar is always the same: chilly. […] We see them at first in the burning sunshine, on a kind of working holiday in the resort town of Kas, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Isa is desultorily taking photos of classical ruins and Bahar is gazing at him dully. Both have run out of things to say to each other, or to do together. (Bradshaw, 2007)

Sitting down to watch it I was planning to look at how, as an example of art house world cinema, Climates might blur the line between imaginary and documentary and use non-place to represent marginalised people. But I found myself distracted by Ceylan’s visual and narrative style. Ceylan’s photography is beautifully composed, but always manages to be slightly unsettling. It achieves much of this subtly off-kilter atmosphere by playing with the audience’s cinematic expectations and comfort levels. He uses long takes to ratchet up the discomfort in several scenes: a dinner in which the two leads bicker in front of their hosts; a sex scene devoid of any intimacy or affection; an uncomfortable post-breakup reunion in a snowbound van. This discomfort is exacerbated by the static camera in each of these scenes, our gaze is unwavering, there’s no movement and no escape. Yet just as the audience settles into these wide long-take scenes, Ceylan pulls the rug out from under us and cuts to a montage of extreme close-ups. And even these are unusual and unexpected with the actors’ faces and bodies often completely blocking the camera and leaving the audience struggling to decipher what they’re seeing on screen.

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Ceylan also plays with cinematic convention by setting up traditional shot-countershot camera angles for a conversation between two characters, but then holding the camera on only one of them; the other remains unseen except for perhaps a glimpse of their shoulder. This robs the audiences of the anticipated reaction shots, a subtly unsettling technique. And just as the audience acclimatises to this viewpoint, Ceylan flips the camera and shows us the other character, breaking the rhythm and destabilising our expectations all over again.

Ceylan continues to unsettle his audience in several scenes by placing the camera almost straight in front of his actors, so that for a moment they seem to be addressing it directly (and breaking the fourth wall). In other scenes he places the camera at an angle either slightly above or below the actors, looking up or down at them rather than the anticipated straight on.

The unexpected nature of the visuals bleeds into the rest of the film, especially in the way in which Ceylan cuts his footage, both intra and inter scene. This continual cycle of discretely unsettling imagery seems to reflect the quandary of Ceylan’s female lead, Behar, who desperately tries to connect with her boyfriend, Isa, as he continually shifts away from her.

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Ceylan exaggerates the remoteness of his subjects and the discomfort of his audience through his use of primarily static camera shots. Even when the camera moves, it only ever appears to move to accommodate the movements of the actors, to keep them in frame. And when Ceylan does move his camera, it’s smooth and slow; as controlled as his static shots.

Equally controlled is his use of colour. The palette seems as muted and remote as the camera. The grey and green-ish tinge that suffuses the film works equally well in conveying the oppressive heat of seaside Kas and the icy Doubeyazit. And he often keeps his characters in shadow, especially his sociopathic male lead, Isa. This forces the audience to visually seek him out, to lean in; just as Isa wants Behar to come to him.

One final note on the cinematography; the shot of Isa watching Behar in the sea as the boat sails across the horizon between them is magnificent in its composition. It’s a beautiful use of space which represents their relationship perfectly.

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Ceylan adeptly uses space and place to mirror the central relationship in his story. The empty tourist resort by the sea, the spartan hotel room, the deserted ruins, the snowy Doubeyazit and its icy citadel. All convey a sense of isolation, remoteness and transience; they are all non-places to the leads even if they have (or had) cultural and social significance to others.

The ancient ruins that Isa photographs in Kas as Behar hangs back are particularly intriguing. Ruins are a prefect representation of how the value of places change with time. Their continued existence suggests that they were once places of significant social and cultural value which were built to last. But in outlasting the civilisations that created them, they become something of a curiosity, no longer needed in their original form; they’re visited and studied, but not inhabited. This use of non-place seems to reflect the transience and impermanence that Behar fears in her relationship with Isa. And their geographical and temporal remoteness represents Isa’s detached demeanour. His insistence on photographing the ruins for his unspecified thesis, suggests a fondness for this remoteness. He’s unbothered by his colleague’s assessment that faraway places are “a bit vacuous and empty”(Ceylan, 2006).

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While watching Climates I found myself wondering why I found it so fascinating, why it was so absorbing. Ceylan is relatively spartan in his dialogue and exposition, much is told through actions and looks, and throughout it all there’s a seeping undertone of violence which reflects the emotional violence perpetrated by Isa. This violence appears in Behar’s dream on the beach, the moped crash and Isa’s seduction of Serap. And it’s made all the more powerful by the audience’s connection with Behar. Ceylan’s cinematography and editing keeps us in her unsettled frame of mind, unsure of our position. And while Isa is the central character, Behar appears to be Ceylan’s protagonist. This seems evident in the final shot of the film, which is not of Isa, but of Behar watching what we assume is Isa’s plane flying away.

Yet the audience’s embodiment of Behar isn’t the only way in which Ceylan engages us in his film. He also cleverly manipulates us into empathising with Isa, by revealing his flawed character slowly and deliberately. When we first see Isa, it’s clear that he doesn’t love Behar and is trying to find a way out of their relationship. But that doesn’t make him a terrible man (almost everyone can understand being unhappy in a relationship, but struggling to break it off). But Ceylan slowly reveals more of Isa’s flaws; his penchant for following women home; his pursuit of Behar to Doubeyazit and his lies to her about wanting marriage and children; his inability to comfort Behar as she cries; his indifference to Behar’s dream that she so excitedly tells him about; and his disdain of the young taxi driver whose photo he takes.

As Ceylan gradually paints a portrait of this character (using his actions towards Behar, his actions towards other women and his actions towards other men) we realise that this is not simply a man who struggles to break off an unhappy relationship, but someone uses and then discards people with no care for their wellbeing. And we realise that he isn’t that far removed from any of us; while we understand Behar, we also have an uncomfortable understanding of Isa. He represents the darker side of all of us. This dichotomy lies at the heart of Climates’  hypnotic appeal. We are lifting up a stone and finding ourselves unable to look away from what lies beneath; except that here the stone is our own psyche.

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References

Bradshaw, P. (2007), Climates [online], The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/feb/09/worldcinema.drama [Accessed on 12 June 2016]

Ceylan, N. B., (2006), Climates, NBC Film – Pyramide Productions

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