This intense, single set two-hander shows Turkish cinema to be in fine fettle.
Reis Celik really knows how to make his characters travel. A near two-hander that largely plays out in a single room, Lal Gece lovingly reconnoiters its protagonists on the tipping-edge of an arranged marriage. Divided into two acts, the first and shorter sees Damat, 60, and his 13-year-old bride Gelin ritually harried through the streets of their mountain village home in Anatolia, to arrive, separately, at the bridal chamber – where the real film begins and ends.
Their journeys – to the centre of the earth, if you like – couldn’t be more different, with Damat making his entrance to drumbeat and pistol-fire and Gelin swept inside by a murmuration of aunts. Their meeting, at-odds in the honeymoon room, cleverly conceives another, more intimate distance between them, which they must traverse, this time, alone.
It sounds an icky, unpleasant premise. It isn’t, because Damat’s endearing mildness – a constant as it mixes with panic, immaturity, self-disgust and pride – keeps at arm’s length the appalling prospect of their unsuitable but unavoidable union. For if Celik’s film seems initially to turn on the promise – and postponement – of their making love, it soon becomes apparent that there’s method in their matrimony (of a local-political nature) and the stakes are far greater than the staining of sheets and his potential humiliation before the male contingent of the community.
This is especially true for Damat, who is old and sensitive. Newly emerged from 40 years in prison, he wakes as if from a nightmare. But Damat can’t shake his inmate’s sense of time wasted, and Gelin, too, has her own quarrel: at thirteen, a theoretical vision of life stretches out before her, but has stopped short, this night, with her betrothal.
This liminality is the film’s greatest achievement: the wedding night unfolding in real-time, but the room a weightless, timeless zone, as if let down like an air-balloon into the snowy plains setting of Damat’s napping-dream. (The inside of his head, as he nods momentarily to sleep, is our only glimpse of “outside” in this second act of the film.)
Still, there’s much to like about the room, which is key to their conciliation. The pair get to know each other by its fittings and the “his and her” objets d’arts: his carving; her needlework. All corners are called upon as living witness to the consummation or not-consummation of their marriage. The white-bundle trousseau, the tapestry of a hunting party, a photograph of Damat’s father, the big, yellow double-door (leading where?) and his gun – two shots to sound the deed done.
In the film’s best scene, Gökhan Tiryaki’s camerawork has us kneeling by the bed as Damat – forfeit for losing a game of cat’s cradle – tells the story of Shahmaran, the half-women/half-snake of Turkish myth who gives her life for love, reducing Gelin to a wet-faced, wretched mess and revealing actor Ilyas Salman (Damat) as an astoundingly talented actor at gun-sight close-range.
There are some small interferences of technique – a ceiling-corner camera angle is too CCTV – and many too many close-ups – of all things excepting the bride’s face – clog up the film’s first section. But when Damat lifts Gelin’s red-sequined veil and we – like he – see her face for the first time, absolutely beautiful, the build-up is, in hindsight, forgivable.
Like his countryman Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Celik loves natural light. As Ceylan went to great lengths to attain a realistic sense of darkness in the outstanding Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, making ersatz moonlight of a 25-kilowatt bulb and a 30-metre crane, Celik perfects night by torch-flame, ceremonial colour and the sunken white of a rural landscape buried under snow. There’s originality, too, in the starkness of the pair’s performing ablutions before prayer under artificial light.
By anybody’s standards, this is tough and exposing territory, which makes it all the more impressive that Celik’s human-inventions remain as luminously secretive as folklore. Helped tremendously by two livid and natural performances, Celik creates so quiet and momentous a world you dare not shut your eyes to it, becoming richer and richer, till it breaks out of shot in the final few minutes. Gelin says, in her girlish wisdom, some stories are enchanted, once they’re started, you have to finish – which is exactly as Damat does at the film’s unforeseeable conclusion.
Winner of Berlin’s Crystal Bear. Add to this cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, who hit career high note with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
Absorbing and evocative storytelling more than makes up for slow opening.
Sting-in-the-tail ending raises positive afterthoughts.