'Clair Obscur': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
Stunning newcomer Ecem Uzun electrifies an intimate women’s drama.

Award-winning Turkish director Yesim Ustaoglu brings another bold women’s drama to the screen.

The two sides of Turkish society, modern and traditional, both repress women in Clair Obscur, a drama in which two women from completely different backgrounds confront their need for love and self-determination. Made with the impressive visual mastery writer-director Yesim Ustaoglu is known for, it happily feels a bit less stretched-out and not so cluttered with arty, time-stopping shots that are an end in themselves in some of her movies. The story should have special appeal for female viewers who will sense the honesty of the protags as they reveal their deepest, most intimate feelings about their relationships and sex lives. That these matters are discussed so openly and frankly in a Turkish context, and include explicit sex scenes, seems surprisingly radical in itself. The current wave of news interest in Turkey may also help the Beta Cinema release find Western audiences.

While the effects of the recent Turkish crackdowns on liberal thinkers have apparently not yet reached cinema, Ustaoglu has never been one to avoid the firing line. As a filmmaker, she has often courted controversy in films likeThe Trace (1994) and Journey to the Sun (1999), which describe political and ethnic repression in Turkey. Clair Obscur has more points of contact with her recent work like Somewhere in Between, as both films deal with female sexuality in conflict with a traditional society. Having to choose between the two, Clair Obscur presents the more powerful vision of women in crisis and looks more accessible to audiences.

Here as in her other work, raw, highly interior performances drive the parallel stories of a restless young psychiatrist and a mousy religious girl unhappily married to a much older man.The point being made is that both modern and traditional women suffer in a patriarchal, male-dominated society where sex is the battleground.

Sehnaz (stage actress Funda Eryigit), an attractive 30ish psychiatrist, works in a hospital in an off-season beach town. Her hot husband Cem (played by Mehmet Kurtulus, a German-Turkish actor who has worked with Fatih Akin) is elsewhere, presumably in Istanbul, where they have a flashy, expensive designer house. Being apart, they seem to have sex via Skype in a brief scene that first suggests a dangerous distance in their relationship related to Cem’s narcissism.  

From the glimpses we’re afforded, her patients are interesting cases. The first is a girl who wants to change gender; the second a schoolboy who kills animals because they get on his nerves.

We already know her third patient, the teenage bride Elmas (Ecem Uzun), whose closeted life of drudgery is contrasted to Sehnaz’s freedom as a modern professional. At first, Elmas seems like the daughter of a man whose face is scarcely seen and a bedridden, diabetic woman she calls mother. But without any warning, the man takes her to bed and has sex with her while she trembles in fear. Incest? No, the girl is his legally married wife. She spends her days cleaning the house and giving her mother-in-law (a memorable cameo by stage actress Sema Poyraz) her insulin shots.

Treated like a sex slave and servant by her husband and mother-in-law, she’s reached the end of her rope. She is practically confined to the house, where she rebels in a small way by smoking in secret. Her documents say she’s 18, but if her mother sent her away two years ago to get married when she was only a child of 13, she’s probably more like 15.

One morning after a storm, the neighbors spot Elmas huddled on the balcony and almost lifeless. When the police arrive, they find her husband and mother-in-law’s bodies. Elmas is sent to the hospital half-dead and under arrest.

Compared to her drama, Sehnaz’s sexual discomfort seems almost insignificant. And though Eryigit gives a sensitive, believable performance that avoids going overboard, the resolution is yawningly facile. The film’s revelation is newcomer Uzun in the role of the Muslim housefrau, who dazzles in an extended but fascinating therapy scene where Sehnaz coaxes her out of muteness to recover her traumatic past.

Cinematographer Michael Hammon interprets the film’s title in terms of impressive images of dark crashing waves on a beach lit brilliant white. Osman Ozcan's set are elegant and sharply define the characters.

Production companies: Unafilm, Ustaoglu Film, Slot Machine in association with Aeroplan Film
Cast: Funda Eryigit, Ecem Uzun, Mehmet Kurtulus, Okan Yalabik, Serkan Keskin, Sema Poyraz 

Director, screenwriter: Yesim Ustaoglu
Producers: Yesim Ustaoglu, Titus Kreyenberg, Marianne Slot
Executive producer: Serkan Cakarer
Director of photography: Michael Hammon
Production designer: Osman Ozcan
Costume designers: Senay Citak, Seda Yilmaz
Editors: Agnieszka Glinska, Svetolik Mica Zajc
Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz
World sales: Beta Cinema
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

105 minutes

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