“At a protest against the demolition of the historic Emek theatre, Nil was beaten and kicked by police offers. My fellow FIPRESCI juror, the excellent critic Berke Göl, was grabbed by the throat, punched, and arrested. Hundreds of other protestors — largely film critics, actors, and directors including festival guest Costa-Gavras — were subject to police force.”
My motives for coming to Istanbul were social and personal. Having spent time with Turkish writers and directors at film festivals, I found that these were the wittiest, fastest-thinking people I’d ever met. They spoke in their second language, English, at a mile a minute, effortlessly coining new phrases along the way. I was particularly excited to see Nil Kural, film critic for the newspaper Milliyet. This girl could have been the inspiration for Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy (2010) in terms of speed and unstoppability. Evidently, terms such as “cat tragedy,” “alive director,” “empathetic Islam,” and “terrorist charisma” (the latter in reference to biopics of Carlos the Jackal and Che Guevara) were so obvious that they needed no unpacking. I needed to hear more.
However, by the festival’s first weekend, all expectations were overturned. At a protest against the demolition of the historic Emek theatre, Nil was beaten and kicked by police offers. My fellow FIPRESCI juror, the excellent critic Berke Göl, was grabbed by the throat, punched, and arrested. Hundreds of other protestors — largely film critics, actors, and directors including festival guest Costa-Gavras — were subject to police force. Many of the writers and filmmakers I met spent the festival in recovery. Nil was in pain and shock, and while Berke tried to seem relaxed, we feared he would be taken in again. A prosecutor has since demanded that Berke and several other critics face up to six years in jail. This brings home the fact that despite Istanbul’s reputation as a cosmopolitan hub, its media and artistic community are very much under threat.
The attack dominated coverage of the festival, although there were also a number of notable films to discuss. Of the films in the Turkish competition, most were interesting, two were pretty good, and a couple were awful. Our first film, Karnaval, was doomed from the start. Its “quirky” soundtrack practically screamed “Just kidding . . .” or “Whaddya know?,” telling us that, despite the depiction of social issues, we were not to take anything too seriously. At festivals, we see a lot of these TV-like dramas in which a man-child learns to grow up with the help of his long-suffering family, and the presence of a grounded woman who is implausibly attracted to him. Last year at Karlovy Vary, the similarly intolerable The Almost Man (2012) was in the main competition; why is there such an interest in these men and their female helpers? In light of the Emek violence, films like these seemed particularly redundant.
Far more accomplished but still predictable, Asli Özge’s Lifelong was the quintessential classy festival film; premiering in Berlin, it has been acclaimed despite its stilted style. It’s a study of marital breakdown set in a minimalist home with steel walls and white spiral staircases. Ela and Can are a power couple in the world of art and design; from the moment we see their designer geometric chairs, we know they’re in trouble.
Özge is one of a long line of directors who equate cutting-edge architecture with barren inner lives. In La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), Antonioni made the combination work because his compositions were always startling as well as harmonious; they never let our eyes rest. But as the camera in Lifelong glides over the house’s interiors, it overemphasizes the link between spartan design and a sterile relationship. Luckily, Özge is a skilful filmmaker, and the film withholds just enough information to keep us watching. But its most memorable aspect is the way its fifty-year-old actress holds the camera. As the wife, Defne Helman has a long wan face — like an emaciated Modigliani — and a strangely beautiful body. She gives a technically excellent performance, but her haggard beauty is the main draw.
One of the standouts in the national section was Mahmut Fazil Coşkun’s Yozgat Blues, a low-key tale set in the easy-to-parody world of lounge singers. We follow two performers as they move though a run-down part of Anatolia, and while their successes are few, we discover the peace, intimacy, and professionalism that can be found in a dingy environment (Coskun doesn’t overstress the dinginess, as a US indie film would tend to do). With its downbeat feel, Yozgat Blues reminds me of Atlantic City (1980) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989): two mood-driven, studio-released films made in the era before “indie” existed as a separate category.
Our jury awarded the prize to Thou Gild’st the Even, an absurdist fantasy and the only film to showcase the famed Istanbul sense of humor. Onur Ünlü’s film is a striking work in its own right, as well as an irresistible send-up of slow cinema (the most obvious targets include Tarkovsky and Nuri Bilge Ceylan). There are ironic close-ups — the film is full of quizzical male faces — and passages of introspection, together with the obligatory fruit-peeling scene. The chilly black-and-white imagery is a parody of the fearfully lucid look of films such as Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009). Most distinctively, Ünlü achieves a tone recalling that of the novelist Flann O’Brien: a light-headed unreality, in which sudden changes of scale and context can’t shake the overall feeling of calm.
In the international competition, the greatest anticipation was for Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel, 1915, starring Juliette Binoche as the tragic artist. This film can’t help but be seen as the long-awaited duel of two acting champs, Binoche and Isabelle Adjani, in their interpretations of Claudel, thirty years apart. At the very least, it represents the contrast between two schools, two methods of attack, on the question of what it means to be talented and sensitive.
Adjani comes from the tradition of sincere, conventionally intense performance: straight-backed and fierce-eyed, with no break in character. It is a dead-on approach that has worked brilliantly in L’Histoire d’Adèle H (1975) and Possession (1981); decades later, her eyes and bones remain fixed in our minds. However, to my taste, Adjani’s take on Camille Claudel (1988) is a little too rigid, anticipating her mannered performances of later years. Her Claudel seems to think nothing but passionate thoughts, and her emotions are always clearly relayed to us: not a luxury enjoyed by most people, genius or not.
Binoche’s style is postmodern and playful; she picks up games and then abandons them, showing us what it is to move in and out of emotions. While Adjani has a porcelain face, Binoche’s looks are feeling and expressive: hers is the beauty of a body that is used and experienced. Above all, she hangs loose: she is a floppy antenna, ready to prick up at any time. This Binoche is the most exciting actor in the world right now (rivalled only by Isabelle Huppert, Andy Lau, and perhaps Rachel Weisz), and she is arguably as much the auteur of her current films as their directors.
Binoche’s version of Claudel is ever-changing. It is hard for her to hold onto a consistent set of gestures, given that she has been declared insane and is surrounded by mentally ill people in an asylum. Adjani’s agony has a bursting, soaring feeling, but Binoche takes us through the less glamorous struggle of a person wanting to be seen as a worthwhile subject. Her Claudel is not pure or sincere; occasionally she has stupid expressions and sneaky looks that might be deemed unworthy of a great artist. As someone who is seen as unbalanced, she knows she has to scale back her emotions. But as time passes, and there is no hope of leaving the asylum, she shies away from both well-meaning voices and the distorted faces of madness. We see how difficult it is (for anyone) to keep up the façade of logical behavior. It is a magnificent performance that combines a historical portrait with a study of acting and self-presentation. My co-jurors adored it, likening it to Falconetti’s Joan of Arc. But these discussions took a back-seat as, between films, Turkish writers and directors planned a second protest, which thankfully passed without incident. Despite some worthwhile movies, this will go down as the year of violence on the Istanbul film community.