A Wild Pear Tree

“Simple minds like to reduce a work to a central idea”, says Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) in a conversation with a local celebrity author. It’s a gibe at the critics of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, a polyvalent, multi-thematic portrait of life in the director’s native region of Çanakkale in the western extreme of Turkey. Sinan has just graduated and returned to his hometown of Çan for his teacher’s exam preparations. Çan is chiefly known to the world as the site of the Trojan war and for its war cemetery. Sinan hates the city, whose natural beauties have been overridden by industrial and domestic garbage. All his childhood friends have left the city for better prospects elsewhere. But he’s nevertheless written a personal book on Çan and its people. Through the film’s three-hour runtime, Sinan tries to secure funds for the publication of his book, talking unsuccessfully to the mayor and then a businessman who patronizes the arts because the corporation gives him contracts. The film is told entirely through his perspective; he is present in every scene of the film, and his subjectivity merges with the events depicted.

One of the primary notions Ceylan’s film examines that of inheritance and legacy. On his return, Sinan connects with his two grandfathers, one a farmer living up in the hills and the other a retired Imam, still solicited by his younger colleagues for weddings and the like. Sinan’s father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is a school teacher and spends his weekends digging a well in the mountains close to his father’s house. Idris is of scientific temperament and believes that the villagers, including his father, are wrong about the village being barren. Sinan, in turn, rebels against Idris, whom he takes to be a gambling addict. It is said that Idris, once a white hope of the town, got mixed up in horse races and lost his house in it. But we never see him gambling and Sinan’s conviction that his father is a ne’er-do-well remains unsubstantiated.

A self-styled misanthropic, Sinan rejects this lineage, considering himself above all this. His disgruntlement with his forefathers is as much artistic as it is familial. In the conversation with the local writer, Sinan grows increasingly confrontational, provoking his interlocutor in typically-upstart fashion. He belittles the author for participating in literary conferences, insinuates that he’d not understand the kind of novel Sinan’s writing. When he manages to publish his book, he signs a copy for his mother and basks in self-satisfaction of having arrived (or rather left this region in an intellectual sense), and having been better than his father. His parricidal tendency, Ceylan seems to be hinting, is a form of wanting to be accepted and the trajectory of the character ends in his owning up to his own provenance. Ceylan’s return to his hometown to make this film is also a kind of owning up, a return to roots for a filmmaker whose calling is now international.

The loosely-autobiographical nature of The Wild Pear Tree is also suggested by the specific memories it offers. The film unfolds leisurely through a series of conversations Sinan has at home and outside. In the first of these, he speaks with a woman he knew as a high-schooler, perhaps a flame, who is now engaged to a rich man against her wishes. They kiss under a tree as the wind ruffles its leaves. In another conversation on literature, the businessman scorns Sinan’s suggestion that anything is to be learnt from the cheerfulness of the town’s old fruit-seller. Sinan’s subjective novel, of which we know next to nothing, is a defence of art as personal expression against the utilitarian approaches of the people he speaks with, who’d rather he writes about the town’s tourist attractions.

There’s a constant friction between the abstractions Sinan deals with and the rooted, pragmatism of his surroundings. In an arresting conversation with two clerics, the non-believing Sinan teases out the head Imam’s hypocrisies. A newer Imam talks about the necessary distinction between the popular Islamic scholars and the important ones, just like Sinan did with the writer. The whole exchange takes place as they walk from an apple tree in the hills down to a tea joint as the sun sinks. As is his wont, Ceylan films them as tiny beings in the landscape, the abstract contours of their theological debate set against concrete physical phenomena like the fading sunlight, smoke from chimneys, moos of cows and noise of motorbikes. The speciality of this dialectical presentation, already evident in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is that it can be interpreted differently by the Imams and Sinan, as per their proclivities.

There are references to the current situation in the country. The entire scenario is predicated on money problems and the issue of unemployment is a constant threat facing Sinan, who’s always looking for things to sell – an obsession he is oblivious to while he scorns his father for gambling. One of Sinan’s friends is now a member of the government-sponsored paramilitary (or military) mobilized to bash up dissenters. But Ceylan is not a political filmmaker – if anything he’s likely the state’s cherished cultural ambassador of cinema like Jia Zhang-ke now is. His sensibility, like Asghar Farhadi’s, is closer to the 19th century Russian novelists than anything modern, and The Wild Pear Tree stretches out like a long parable minus the moral clarity. A shot of Sinan, his father and his grandfather together pulling up a boulder from a pit only to drop it back is a cogent summation of the film’s existential thrust.

Mektoub My Love

There’s a shot some fourteen hours into Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno in which a baby goat stares right at the camera. It’s not planned but it’s the first time we are reminded of the director’s presence in a film that’s all fly-on-the-wall. Kechiche’s always-mobile camera registers the smallest wrinkle of human interaction; his film is a veritable encyclopaedia of modern French greetings, gestures and social rituals. It’s rigorous, it’s exacting, but it’s also incurably obsessed with the heroine’s body, especially its rear end. One thing is sure: Kechiche really puts the cul in culture. It’s not anything new for the maker of Black Venus, an incisive study of the objectification and progressive breakdown of the black, female body. But here, as in Blue is the Warmest Colour, the viewer’s gaze of the film’s subject isn’t questioned. The film opens with a sex scene, but the camera is squarely on the woman, an all-too-easy site of male identification that’s already pervasive in visual culture.

The ostensible point of view of this opening scene is the voyeur-protagonist at the window, Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), who is taken aback that this woman is sleeping with his cousin Tony while engaged to another man. Amin interrupts the session, prompting his cousin to flee and the woman, Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), to scamper for her clothes. The dialogue between Amin and Ophélie that follows is awkward as expected, but tensely humorous in its mixture of empty cordiality and latent expectation of sexual violence. Nothing untoward happens though, and Amin turns out to be not just the film’s most charming character, but a downright gent. The year is 1994, Amin is reluctantly studying medicine in Paris and has come home to Sète on the Azure Coast for vacation. Like the protagonist in The Wild Pear Tree, he is an artist at heart: he writes film scripts and photographs. And just like Sinan, Amin is present in every scene of the film.

Life in Sète revolves around his extended family, which manages a popular restaurant in the city together. It’s summer and Amin’s relatives, all uniformly good-looking, spend their days at the beach and evenings at restaurants and pubs. Mektoub is an endless series of beach and party scenes, and presents a dreamy idea of fun with boys and girls frolicking in groups – a 20th century version of fête champêtre paintings. The mood is invariably, suffocatingly upbeat, with one girl’s heartbreak providing a welcome, sombre counterpoint to the primary-colour emotions of the scenes. Kechiche’s film opens, funnily enough, with quotes from the Bible and the Koran about light, and the film is a showcase of beautiful sun-kissed bodies shot in immersive intimacy. After sundown, they are seen in the artificial lights of disco and bars. The men and women dance with and seduce each other in varying permutations and, given their vague relationships, the invitation to dance scan as competitive mating rituals. Kechiche films their dynamic like an ethnographer, observing the minutiae of the process of la drague, the progress of flirtatious conversations from everyday exchange to something more.

The film is narrated through Amin’s perspective, but the point of view is fluid within each sequence, with Kechiche’s camera moving around the restaurant to construct mini-scenes involving different characters, something like a Renoir tableau. One impressive aspect of Kechiche’s film is that, despite being coupled to Amin, it breathes freely. So we get a subtle, superbly-detailed conversation between women of the family trying to passive-aggressively break up Ophélie’s affair. Likewise, a moment with Ophélie and Tony trying to steal a kiss, fretting about the crowd in the pub, in a work full of explicit, very physical exchanges. Kechiche’s film brims crushingly-banal small talk and they would be of high documentary value if they weren’t so repeated and generalized. There are conversations between Ophélie and Amin about his relatives that are tediously long and go nowhere in particular. The fatigue is deliberately induced for what Kechiche wants to contrast it with later.

Amin remains an observer and a reticent participant in all this. While his cousins are busy picking up girls, he isn’t interested even when girls proposition him. On the contrary, his conversations with prospective partners builds up from shop talk to end in awkward silence, whose tension remains unresolved. He prefers spending his morning taking photos or watching Pudovkin. There’s no suggestion he is indifferent to girls, especially Ophélie, whom he stares at whenever she’s intimate with someone else. But there’s no sense that he wants to sleep with her either. As a favour from Ophélie in exchange for keeping silent about her affair with his cousin, Amin asks her if she can pose nude for his photos. His emotional peak comes in a sequence at a goat shed – a calculated break from the headiness of the other scenes – where he photographs a goat giving birth. Scored to operatic vocals, it’s a moving scene, and Kechiche pitches it at as an experience more rarefied than what transpires in the rest of the film. Amin, like Kechiche, is presented as the artist figure, trying to preserve his integrity in a world full of distractions and shapely bottoms. The point is that you can either make art or have fun. It’s Kechiche exculpating himself: he’s not having fun filming these undulating bums and naked torsos, he’s making Art.