A Canvas of Darkness and Light: The Films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is back in the spotlight, his latest film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, set to debut stateside next month at the New York Film Festival, having won the best screenplay award at Cannes – a peculiar if not perverse distinction given how dialogue-averse his work is. Setting his writing aside, it’s as a visual stylist that he’s made his mark on viewers. A master of staging, depth, color and composition, Ceylan’s films possess a cinematographic range that, as exemplified by his previous two films, literally encompasses night and day.

Climates (2006) depicts a love story in the daytime; Three Monkeys (2008) shows adultery and political corruption playing out in a perpetually darkened landscape. The colors in Climates are frequently natural and untouched, while Three Monkeys’ hues are tweaked to look oppressively grey: even when it’s daytime, it always seems like night. Their different tones and color palettes are established in the opening shots: one’s well-composed without being overwhelming (vacation hillside roving in natural light), while the other’s a true stunner designed to immediately grab your attention (a car’s headlights moving further and further away from a slower-moving camera into total darkness, eventually plunging the entire screen into black):



Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a former still photographer, leading to strong compositions like this one in Climates:


By my count, there are five strong diagonal lines coming straight at the viewer in that shot: the power lines on the left, the moving train, the track occupied only by young Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), the wall to his right, and the buildings beyond (themselves wavy and curving in sympathy with the locomotive). Every shot in Three Monkeys is meant to overwhelm: like Carlos Reygadas‘ Silent Light and Radu Mundean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (two other recent, formally meticulous widescreen adultery dramas), visual splendor transforms everyday dramatic material into grand tragedy.

Relationships are the exclusive, almost monomaniacal preoccupation of Climates, while they’re just part of the stew of political corruption and unpunished criminality in Three Monkeys (in one scene, Ismail slaps his mother four times, which doesn’t even stand out as the worst thing happening but would stop an American movie dead). The sea is a backdrop in both films:



Both also have cliffside faceoffs between adulterous couples whose relationships have gone sour:



Ceylan can move the camera, but he would generally prefer not to, instead using strong foreground/background contrasts to lay out power relationships. Sometimes the effects are very simple in concept and flawlessly executed. There’s a famous shot in Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart’s face is threateningly overcast by the shadow thrown off by Grace Kelly, his fiancee and a threat to his freedom. Ceylan does something similar in Climates, when the sulky professor he plays comes up from the water, walks across the beach and glowers over his partner, growing from a tiny blur far in the backdrop behind her breast to an oppressive, light-blocking presence hovering above from offscreen:



Climates is a personal film, with the director and his actual wife playing an off-again, on-again couple; Three Monkeys is a more pointedly political work, with a failed member of the AK Party cast as its main villain. The AK Party is the dominant force in Turkish politics of the past decade, and its critics have accused it of pushing Islamic governance on the people, undermining Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of secularism, fascist tendencies and all other manner of offenses. Perhaps that’s one reason Three Monkeys is shot like a horror film, complete with the ghost of a boy who drowned who appears as a water-logged wraith with big black eyes (shades of The Ring):


There are almost no jokes in either film; Ceylan’s serious almost to a fault, depending on your taste. A rare moment of levity is a surprisingly goofy, basic gag about a big guy getting out of his car to threaten the motorist honking at him, only to encounter some much bigger and imposing people staring at him:



Climates could be the title of both movies, as they both heavily feature weather changes: snowfall adds a literally/figuratively frosty visual layer to Climates‘ last act, while an oncoming storm system hanging overhead ominously punctuates Three Monkeys (more water in the skies). Ceylan’s stolid, practically stoic regard for incremental changes in nature (human and meteorological alike) can approach levels ripe for parody; in fact he may be the first to mock his stylistic proclivities and influences. In Ceylan’s 2002 film Distant, a man puts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s ruminative juggernaut Stalker when an unwanted houseguest walks in; after an especially endless Tarkovsky shot drives away the interloper, the man returns to his original viewing material: porn. Ceylan may be in on the arthouse jokes, but ultimately his regard for stylistic precursors like Tarkovsky is unwaveringly earnest. (Unsurprisingly, Googling “ceylan tarkovsky” returns 122,000 results.) Both Climates and Three Monkeys emphasize the link between drama and landscape in an elemental way that’s worthy of the late Russian master. They appear as thunderclouds on a dark horizon: slow-approaching yet portentous, boldly vying for your attention.


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