'Album': Cannes Review
Mehmet Can Mertoglu's first feature, which is part of the Cannes Critics' Week, looks at Turkish society through the prism of adoption.
A civil-servants couple from Turkey is so busy creating the illusion of a happy family that life passes them by in writer-director Mehmet Can Mertoglu's Album. Part of the Cannes Critics’ Week, this debut feature, shot on earthen-toned 35mm, certainly looks the part, though the pic’s elliptical storytelling and refusal to either illuminate the protagonists’ thinking and get audiences on their side or pass judgment on their rather odd behavior leaves the film too often feeling like an aesthetic exercise that delivers a mild critique of contemporary Turkish society but not much else. That said, its high-profile Cannes premiere will give the movie a lot of visibility on the festival circuit, with some niche sales likely.
Album opens with something that only sort of makes sense in hindsight, as a man in a lab coat catches a bull’s sperm before the animal mounts a cow in a modern-looking stable facility. The story that follows, however, is set in the cities of Antalya, on the Turkish Riviera, and Kayseri in central Turkey, both metropolises with over 1 million inhabitants and with not a single bovine in sight. The film’s human protagonists adopt a child, so clearly the prologue, which ends with the clinical insemination of an egg under a microscope, is meant to be a metaphor or allegory of some kind about having offspring in a less natural fashion, though since the human couple doesn’t use a sperm donor but adopts an orphan, what Mertoglu exactly wants to say with his bovine sequence is not entirely clear.
When the audience first meets Bahar (Sebnem Bozoklu) and her husband, Cuneyt (Murat Kilic), they take an old-fashioned point-and-shoot camera everywhere while Bahar wears a fake belly (which is mentioned once but otherwise stays hidden under her clothes). The film’s first sentence of dialogue — “Can you snap a picture of me and Bahar?” — isn't uttered until more than 10 minutes into the feature, with Mertoglu here rather self-consciously referencing his own shorts, which didn’t have any dialogue.
Cuneyt turns out to be a history teacher at a high school and Bahar works at a government tax office. In carefully choreographed and slowly sideways-moving tracking shots, Mertoglu shows their professional environments: Bahar is the only one in her office working while everyone else seems to have nodded off, while Cuneyt finds himself in front of an impossibly rowdy class of teenagers. The shots are striking but again their precise meaning is unclear: Is Bahar fit to be a mother because she goes above and beyond what her colleagues are doing? Is Cuneyt not ready for fatherhood because he can’t keep a group of adolescents in check? What these wordless shots are meant to suggest exactly is never clear.
The two go to an orphanage in Antalya, where they live, though they’re not pleased with the baby earmarked for them. They wanted a boy, not a little girl who looks like she could be Kurdish or Syrian. Their visit and conversation with the man running the orphanage is shot through with black comedy and reveals the casual racism, sexism and couldn’t-care-less attitude toward work — a priceless shot shows the orphanage director playing a card game on his computer while the couple is already sitting in his office — of Turkish society. Men in power, especially, all seem to get the short end of the stick in the film, with most of them resorting to bullying their underlings as a way to confirm and consolidate their control.
What’s missing is any sense of the psychology of the characters, especially after Bahar and Cuneyt finally find a boy that they like in an orphanage in faraway Kayseri. They even take the little baby to a hospital to take pictures with the doctors and nurses there, as if to create the fake memory of the boy’s delivery. But who are they doing this for? Themselves? Their family or society at large? Or the boy when he’ll be older and will ask them where he came from? Is there such a stigma attached to adoption in Turkey and/or are these two simply so delusional they think they can create the perfect pregnancy and childbirth memories with nothing more than a photo camera? All these questions hover over the material but are never answered properly, also because the central duo never develops any kind of conflict or even clear relationship with most of the secondary characters, which tend to pop up for a scene or two and then disappear from view.
The only thing that’s pretty clear is that this civil-servant couple doesn’t want other people to find out they adopted, which is why Cuneyt is in for a shock when he finds himself at a police station following an unexpected death at their apartment — another plotline that’s never fully explored — and he learns that the police can see in his personal records that he’s adopted a child. Presumably, this is the explanation for the rather irrational closing images, though there, too, it’s more guesswork than the result of any clearly legible emotional throughline that explains the characters’ behavior.
Several high-profile European directors are on board as co-producers, including Oscar winner Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land) and Golden Bear winner Calin Peter Netzer (Child’s Pose). But their films find a visual style that might aid each particular story, whereas here it feels like the opposite has happened. Romanian cinematographer Marius Panduru (Aferim!) often shoots from high angles looking down, and this reinforces what feels like the director's condescending tone towards his protagonists, though the warmth of the actors and the dialogue suggest these are well-meaning if misguided characters. Without a strong point of view, it becomes hard to care about either the people or the issues with which they are grappling.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Production companies: Kamara, A.S.A.P. Films, Parada Film
Cast: Sebnem Bozoklu, Murat Kilic, Muttalip Mujdeci, Mufit Kayacan, Riza Akin, Zuhal Gender Erkaya
Writer-director: Mehmet Can Mertoglu
Producers: Yoel Meranda, Eytan Ipeker
Co-producers: Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet, Danis Tanovic, Oana Iancu, Calin Peter Netzer
Director of photography: Marius Panduru
Production designers: Meral Efe, Yunus Emre Yurtseven
Costume designer: Seda Yilmaz
Editor: Ayhan Ergursel
Casting: Kutay Sandikci
Sales: The Match Factory
Not rated, 104 minutes