If you thought Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett had a miserable vacation in Babel, wait until you see Climates. The story of a terminally unhappy but inextricably bound Turkish couple who live to break up, make up and slowly drive each other insane, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest exercise in minimalist psychodrama is bound to alienate some viewers while it enthralls others. The film is just the latest in a long history of stark, haunting portraits of failed relationships, a tradition that stretches from the chamber dramas of Ingmar Bergman to the mannered romances of Michelangelo Antonioni to the dreamy, melancholy films of Wong Kar-Wai. Depending on the state of your love life, you probably know right now whether you'll respond to Climates, but there's no denying that Ceylan brings something new to the table even as he takes his cues from the greats.
We get an idea of what we're in for from the opening exchange: "Are you bored?" the brooding Isa (Ceylan) asks his young girlfriend Bahar (played by the director's wife, Ebru Ceylan). "No," she lies. That may very well constitute the longest two lines of dialogue in the film: Ceylan's quiet, deliberate strategy is to draw you into his characters' emotional lives by focusing on their glances, gazes and body language. He alternates extreme close-ups of their faces with wide shots of crumbling ruins, snow-covered villages, the Aegean Sea; the message seems to be that these two are about as readable and predictable as their environments.
Whether they're relaxing on the beach, lounging at their hotel or having dinner with friends, it's clear that Isa and Bahar are miserable together, although it's only when they return to Istanbul that we understand the nature of Bahar's scorn: A cynical, callous university professor, Isa is at once obsessively needy and emotionally distant. His unreadability somehow makes him more attractive: When he shows up on the doorstep of his former mistress' place, she rebuffs his advances, just before the two claw at each other in a brutal sex scene that's more like coed pro wrestling than anything one would call "lovemaking."
When directors cast themselves in their movies, it's often the kiss of death, but Celyan has an odd, powerful allure as an actor. He looks like a fading, middle-aged matinee idol, and the camera studies every divot and pockmark in his craggy face, looking for some shred of decency, some compassion. Since Bahar is meant to be so short-fused at least initially Ebru Ceylan has the more difficult task, but by the end, she provides the movie with a powerful, much-needed emotionalism. It's an important balance, since all of Ceylan's directorial choices train you to focus on what his characters don't say: This is one of those rare foreign films where you're so hypnotized by the actors that you might find yourself blissfully ignoring the subtitles at the bottom of the screen.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 23-24, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 25.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.