Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
House of Pleasures
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, of Turkey, is an exceptional writer-director, deeply serious and with the gifts to be so. The two earlier films of his that I have seen, Distant and Climates, though immediately engaging in their characters and stories, soon showed that Ceylan was using them as a means of depicting the society in which they took place—modern Turkey. Essentially he wanted us to breathe the air his people breathed.
Ceylan is also a talented actor: he played the leading role in Climates with distinction. But he does not appear in his new film. He wrote it with his wife, Ebru Ceylan, as well as with screenwriter Ercan Kesal, and he directed it with impeccable skill and humane comprehension—with a kind of patience. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, but even without that prize, it confirms his place among the pre-eminent of our time.
The latest picture, Ceylan’s fifth feature, is called Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and at once we know that, today, a film with that title is not going to be a fairy tale. The immediate ingredients couldn’t be further from fantasy—a murder and a search for the victim’s body. The title implies ironically the reverse of the fantastic. Moreover, in the course of the film, one man suggests mockingly to another that he will be able to tell his grandson about this search and can begin, “Once upon a time in Anatolia....”
After a brief introduction, we see twilight, great blankets of approaching night hanging over the low hills of Anatolia—eastern Turkey. Then, far off, the headlights of three cars sparkle as they burrow their way toward us through the dark. Almost all the first half of the picture takes place at night, most of it outdoors, in the cars’ lights. (Ceylan’s usual cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki, works marvels with those lights.) We soon become aware—a parallel never heavily handled—that this search through darkness implies other, less literal searches.
The three cars are a police caravan, carrying a police chief, a forensic doctor, a prosecutor, and a confessed murderer—along with staff people. The murderer is leading the officials to the body of his victim, which he has buried out here—or is trying to lead them there. He was drunk when he buried the victim and it was night, so it takes several attempts before they find the body.
Yet most of the film is chiefly concerned not with the murderer or the crime, but with the leaders of the search. As they travel, the wearied police chief grumbles to the others about the people he deals with, most of them dangerous, some of whom he has shot without a shrug. (The handcuffed murderer is sitting in the back of this car.) The principal conversations are between the prosecutor and the doctor as they travel from place to place, conversations that outline the characters of these two men: the accomplished ferreting nature of the prosecutor, the doctor’s store of discomfiting experience.
A plot element that connects the murderer with the paternity of a boy works its way into the film. It proves to be important in several ways, but Ceylan’s main concern is not that element or the murder or the gruesome nature of this search. It is the searchers and the chance that the search gives them to talk—in ways that convey much about each. Secrets are hinted at. Ceylan is not trying to establish that the investigators of a crime may themselves be tinged with misdeeds, nothing so pat. These talks are simply not those we might expect from men investigating a murder. This night is for them just one more professional assignment, and they converse about things of more interest to them, which happen to include a quite different death. Ceylan is simply fascinated with the concept of a police caravan winding through the night on a murder mission, with the chief people in it otherwise concerned.
During the night the search party stops to have a bite with the mayor of a village, and as they are finishing, the mayor’s teenage daughter comes in to serve tea. She is lovely, reticent, she never speaks, but her mere presence hushes the men, who have been talking fairly roughly. The moment is a reminder of the scene in Renoir’s Grand Illusion when the women’s costumes are unpacked in the prison camp and the prisoners grow quiet. Like Renoir, Ceylan is brushing these midnight searchers, who at the moment are ensealed in a different world, with a token of the world from which they come.
The murder victim is at last found, and next morning the doctor and the prosecutor deliver the body to the autopsy room of a small-town hospital. The prosecutor brings in the woman involved in the paternity quarrel, the victim’s wife; she—almost mutely—identifies the body, and the prosecutor takes her away. After the technician complains to the doctor about the old instruments he has to use, the procedure begins. We do not see the actual autopsy, but we are at the table while the technician proceeds, as the doctor dictates his findings to a stenographer. (One detail, of relevance, the doctor omits, as if the case were complicated enough as it is.) Thus we are present while a human being is being reduced to its components. The autopsy makes uncomfortably plain, despite the foreign place and the crime, the victim’s commonalty with us. It is chilling, strangely humbling.
At the end, the doctor is at a window watching the boy who is involved in the case walk down the road with his mother. They pass a schoolyard where a ball is accidentally kicked outside the fence. The boy kicks it back. The doctor watches as if this tiny commonplace incident of two people who are connected with a crime reminded him that, like the caravan in the night, the whole oddly integrated enterprise of life will wind on.
The cast of Ceylan’s film amply provides authenticity, especially Muhammet Uzuner as the doctor and Taner Birsel as the prosecutor. Ceylan’s own growing reputation will, I hope, continue to grow. He uses the realistic film as an avenue to what lies around and beyond the realism.
BY NOW MOST OF US have had at least some brothel experience—through fiction, plays, films. Much of the time the brothels have been European, although in recent years there have been documentaries about Asian red-light districts stocked with children. The European brothels, like the one visited in Rossellini’s General della Rovere, are just places where clubby young women work at something or other involving men or, as in numerous other pictures, are clubs for men, friendly refuges from marriage with lovely women as décor and amusement. Now comes House of Pleasures, a French film set in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century that means to show us that those earlier versions were not inaccurate but incomplete, from the women’s point of view. Though set in the Belle Epoque to loll in its lushness, this film is certainly meant to be basically true today.
Not all of us have actually been waiting for this truth, but few of us can resist a picture that, however serious in purpose, is immersed in sex and sexuality. Bertrand Bonello has directed with a fleshly intimacy that, like good nude painting, carries an extra charge.
L’Apollonide is the name of this elegant and expensive place, staffed with women who seem to have stepped out of the art of the period. The patrons are all gentlemen, many of whom know one another. Besides the usual details of the profession, there are two main stories, both about the women. First, there is the admission of a fifteen-year-old girl who has written a letter of application from the country and is admitted after an interview by the madam. (The madam’s two children wander through the film playfully at home.) Second is the depiction of a mutilation by a handsome young client. In a horrific scene, he carves a smile in a woman’s face. She wears a veil thereafter. Presumably the man is rich and pays his way, because there is no action against him and he continues as a patron, though without more mayhem.
More on the non-clubby side is the syphilis contracted by one of the women whose corpse we later see, face covered with sores. We also learn of the madam’s collusion with the police prefect; we see the women’s monthly examination by a doctor; we reach the madam’s decision to sell her house and her sale of the women. The account of the place and the life seems complete.
Nothing in this film comes as a surprise, but Bonello’s intent to show the place backstage as well as onstage is fulfilled and pertinent, even though the period setting gives the picture a curio air. The sex practices of the time, however, have not dated.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the February 2, 2012, issue of the magazine.