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Almost as soon as filmmaking became an industry, willful directors began rejecting its conventions, breaking the rules of how, when, where, and even why to make a movie. The cinematic revolutionaries’ latest tool is digital video, a medium that’s cheap and flexible, if not always beautiful. Both Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s luminous Climates and David Lynch’s murky Inland Empire were filmed in DV, whose simplicity of use allowed the directors to capture highly personal stories with moments of exceptional intimacy. Yet the closest link between these two films is not image but sound: These are pictures that must be watched with ears wide open.
Climates opens at the site of a ruined ancient temple somewhere on Turkey’s Aegean coast. A middle-aged man and a younger woman are there on vacation, together and yet apart. As Isa (writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan) photographs the weathered classical columns, Bahar (Ebru Ceylan, the director’s wife) wanders up a nearby hill. In place of dialogue are the sounds of buzzing insects, crunching footsteps, and barking dogs. Isa trips, and Bahar smiles. Then she begins to cry.
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Later, at dinner with another couple, it becomes clear what’s happened to Isa and Bahar, and it’s a familiar story. She’s young and impetuous; he’s older and more staid, inclined to respond witheringly to her fancies. Dozing on the beach, Bahar dreams that Isa is literally suffocating her, and she responds with a gesture that could have fatal consequences. Then Isa proposes that they split for a while. They do, traveling to separate climes: He returns to Istanbul, where he teaches art and works on a long-deferred dissertation. She travels to snowy, mountainous eastern Turkey—familiar from Ceylan’s previous feature, Distant—where she works as the art director of a TV series.
The cultivated but hardly soulful Isa doesn’t exactly understand Bahar, and Climates doesn’t pretend to get her, either. It takes Isa’s point of view, which is why the film’s second chapter is set in Istanbul, chronicling his life as Bahar continues hers off-screen. Isa shows his temple photos to his students and banters with a colleague. At a bookstore, he meets a couple and makes polite small talk. The next scene, however, reveals that the woman, Serap (Nazan Kesal), is Isa’s former girlfriend. He follows her home and puts his head in her lap, she resists and then accedes, and the two lovers writhe across the floor until cinematographer GÃ¶khan Tiryaki’s low-angled camera is at risk of being knocked over. The scene is playful, but by calling attention to the camera’s placement, it also shows Ceylan’s concern with the mechanics of storytelling.
It’s Serap who tells Isa where Bahar has gone, and we hear the sound of an airliner before the plane enters the frame, arriving at a frigid provincial airport. Isa has decided to win Bahar back, although without much of a plan. He tells her he’s ready to marry but presents her not with an engagement ring but a cheap music box he bought while wandering the town. In a remarkable scene, Isa makes his case to a weeping Bahar while both sit in a production-crew van, repeatedly interrupted as people return or remove equipment. The inconclusive talk is supplemented by the sounds of bells, more dogs, and some spare piano, and finally something more narratively demonstrative than the ex-couple’s conversation: a scene from the TV series that employs Bahar.
Ceylan here observes an unexceptional psychic impasse, employing a style indebted to the cinema of alienation pioneered by Michelangelo Antonioni and other directors who made their reputations in the ’60s. What makes it fresh is not that the dialogue is in Turkish rather than French or Italian but Ceylan’s deliberate yet propulsive style. In addition to using ambient sounds to slide the tale from moment to moment, entering one scene aurally while the image lags, he also stages tiny jumps in time so that preliminaries suddenly become the actual event or rationalizations are unmasked by reality. (At one moment, for example, Isa’s rehearsal of a speech to Bahar suddenly becomes the conversation he was planning.) Life overtakes Isa, just as the narrative skips mildly unsettle the onlooker. Climates is a saga of everyday people with a commonplace problem, yet with an attention to sonic, temporal, and psychological detail that renders it very nearly thrilling.