Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer and Nobel laureate, recently wrote a memoir of growing up in Istanbul, a city that was worn out before he got to it. In a new film from Turkey called Climates, a couple seems exhausted from the opening frames: We see the face of an attractive—but not glamorous—young woman in a tight close-up. She's peering from behind a weathered structure at someone off-screen, who will turn out to be her lover.
As the shots open up, we see that they are visiting ancient ruins from a long-gone Black Sea civilization. The once-mighty columns lay at the feet of Basar, the woman, and Isa, her middle-aged boyfriend. In case we miss the metaphor, Bahar wanders off to sit on a hillside. In a long, unbroken close-up, we see her placid, lovely face mutate into a fountain of tears.
Soon enough, Bahar and Isa split up (while sunbathing) and go their separate ways. Bahar drops out of the story for a bit while the point of view shifts to Isa, who spin his wheels in an half-hearted academic career. Even rough sex with a very fetching ex-girlfriend can't lift his spirits. After a few months of a wet, cold Istanbul winter, Isa decides to track down Bahar, who has taken a television job in the remote eastern mountains, around Kurdistan.
While the film's impeccably composed images and bravura performances are more than enough to recommend it, some of us may become impatient with the passive-aggressive Isa and the neurotic Bahar: Americans, even if we don't want to admit it, prefer active characters who pursue their desires. Isa and Bahar, on the other hand, are less interesting than they could be, and when Isa tells an unforgivable lie late in the story, our reservoir of goodwill simply isn't there.
Remarkably, the couple is played by writer and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his wife, Ebru Ceylan. However, one senses that the film isn't really about them. Rather, they played the roles because they knew the parts, it was cheaper, and above all, both are gifted performers.
It's a blessing and a curse that Climates, and the sensibilities of the actors in it, harken back to the bourgeois despair of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960s heyday. As elegant and audience-flattering as this modernist aesthetic is, it can be a refuge for people who have run out of hope in a decaying culture.