As Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s aesthetic scope broadens, his films ironically get smaller.
As Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s aesthetic scope broadens, his films ironically get smaller. Winter Sleep concentrated the sprawl of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s crime drama into the dark family comedy of Chekhov. Now the director returns with The Wild Pear Tree, arguably the most opulent feature yet in one of the most consistently gorgeous filmographies of the 21st century. The film boats lavish crane shots, vivid leaps in expressionistic lighting and a kinetic sense of movement. At its heart, though, is a story that is almost hilariously quotidian, focusing entirely on a young post-graduate who moves back to his rural hometown while attempting to get the funds to publish his novel, all the while revealing both the external and emotional issues holding this millennial back from self-actualization.
The wannabe writer, Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol), has a touch of Barton Fink to him. When he speaks to locals, he comes off as if he’s mentally writing monologues for them to include in future books rather than listening to anyone. Shopping around a pitch for his “meta-novel,” Sinan goes to the local mayor to ask for public funds to publish a run of his book, only to be immediately rebuffed, much to the pompous young man’s shock. For the remainder of the film, Sinan roams the area ostensibly in search of publishing cash but really in search of a larger sense of validation.
Winter Sleep, in which the protagonist had his inflated self-image brutally punctured by family and peers who finally let him in on their dislike of him, showed Ceylan’s unexpected gift with dialogue-heavy comedy. The Wild Pear Tree expands on this, placing Sinan in an episodic series of encounters in which his attempts at communication rebound back upon himself. One day, Sinan is in a bookstore and runs into Suleyman (Serkan Keskin), a famous author. Sinan asks the professional for advice, but over the course of their conversation, the graduate cannot stop himself from acting haughtily, speaking over the established author and mocking his mature, reflective tone until the patient writer finally explodes in a rage. Later, Sinan finds himself on the receiving end of this tedious pedantry when he gets caught between two friends arguing over the place of religion in the modern world, with a bitter argument erupting over fundamentalism versus liberalism that Sinan hilariously tries to cut off to no avail. For once, he gets an insight into how annoying he is, and his visible discomfort is a riotous anchor for the philosophical scene.
Ceylan films these distinct sequences with their own visual schema, often relying on walk-and-talk patterns but constantly orienting the camera to emphasize the most dominant figure of any conversation. This is especially noticeable in scenes with Sinan’s father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), a teacher and gambling addict whose gregariousness is rooted in perpetual childishness. When Sinan first returns home, we get a sense of Idris’s stranglehold on the family in the way that the camera constantly shifts to focus on him as he interrupts others and barks orders to his wife and daughter with just enough playfulness to thinly mask his assumption of patriarchal control. If Winter Sleep adapted Chekhov with a dash of Dostoevsky, this film reverses that dynamic, largely centering a Dostoevskian sense of existential stasis and demonstrative philosophical self-justification. Ceylan develops that thread through the constant shifts in metaphorical and literal focus between Sinan and Idris in their immature battle of wills.
As insufferable as Sinan can be, however, Ceylan also devotes several show-stopping sequences to moments of budding reflection that find him actually grappling with the understanding he otherwise holds at bay. Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography has rarely looked more lush than it does when Sinan runs into Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), a childhood crush who remained behind while he went off to college. Though the scene occurs early in the film, it offers the entire arc of self-conflict in précis, first showing Sinan’s sarcastic side as he teases her about remaining in the small town and having to adhere to its conservative gender roles, but she responds back with equal wit, taunting him for his attitude and lack of accomplishment. Gradually, however, the two start to open up to each other, letting out their respective frustrations at their positions in life, and Tiryanki cranks up the lighting to bathe them in a golden glow as the camera begins to swoon around them with an intricacy worthy of Max Ophüls. In their conversation are guarded references to social politics and economic worry, and their shared moment of misery prompts a romantic interlude filtered through the overhanging leaves of a pear tree. Ceylan homes in on small gestures of eroticism, from Hatice removing her headdress to the two wrapping their hands around each other. The sequence keeps teasing a premature end, the camera floating off with a gust of wind, only to drift back to find the two still cautiously nearing each other.
That Sinan cannot commit more fully to this obvious opening is the film’s first indication that his immaturity runs deeper than his own artistic self-value, and the elegance with which Ceylan constantly re-centers the young man’s subtle fear and resentment of women punctures Sinan’s notions of intellectual advancement by showing how regressive he can be. As much as Sinan feuds with his deadbeat father, he seems to harbor much more anger toward his mother, Asuman (Bennu Yıldırımlar), blaming her for staying with Idris despite how much financial ruin he has brought the family. This opens the door for Asuman to assert herself more toward the film’s ending stretch, speaking up about her own past and how she ended up where she is. Her somber but unbeaten tone shakes up what is otherwise a distended generational comedy, offering a glimpse into the fallout of masculine self-regard that more than anything prompts Sinan to re-evaluate his life and offers hope that he might actually overcome his father not with success but by becoming a better man.