Clair Obscur review: Provocative questioning of the essence of female experience

The Turkish film, a gripping tale of contrasts, opened the 14th Asian Women's Film Festival in New Delhi.

Prateek Rawat

IAWRT India’s 14th Asian Women’s Film Festival was inaugurated yesterday at the India International Centre, New Delhi. The opening film was critically acclaimed Turkish filmmaker Yesim Ustaoglu’s gripping feature, Clair Obscur (Tereddüt).

A scenario of contrasts, Clair Obscur is an intimate drama that draws its energy from the exploration of complementariness, interrelations and apparent dualities of two women living in modern Turkey.

As representations of women in contrasting circles of society, the two protagonists could not be more alienated from each other. Sehnaz (Funda Eryigit) is a psychiatrist in her thirties, living with a narcissistic boyfriend Cem (Mehmet Kurtulus), her life marked by the typical parameters of modernity — education, career, sexual freedom and inexplicable unease.

Elmas (Ecem Uun) is an uneducated teenager, married to an older man, bound by the duties of a traditional wife — an object of sexual gratification for her husband, a domesticated secondary to her diabetic mother-in-law, and occasionally attempting to smoke a forbidden cigarette in the balcony.

A chance happening engenders an encounter between these two lives when a hypothermic and catatonic Elmas is discovered by a neighbour and rushed to hospital where she soon gets relegated to the psychiatric care of Sehnaz.

The case is possibly criminal as Elmas’s mother-in-law and husband have been found dead in the apartment while she lay hypothermic and locked out in her balcony. Elmas is deeply troubled, volatile and suffers frequent nervous breakdowns.

Sehnaz attempts to treat Elmas for the obvious case of prolonged psychological trauma while battling the not-so-obvious and inexplicable discomfort she feels in her relationship with the narcissistic Cem, who often finds pleasure in pornography than in their relationship.

As Elmas’s past slowly invades her present in dreams and nightmares, Sehnaz’s present slowly unfolds itself to reveal the causes of her insistent unhappiness and dissatisfaction. An encounter with a sympathetic co-worker brings to light the issues in her own relationship.

Clair Obscur follows the themes of solitude, alienation, fractured and dysfunctional families, absence of communication, and detachment in the stylistic and thematic hallmarks of Yesim Ustaoglu’s filmmaking career.

A prolific woman filmmaker of the Turkish New Wave, with films such as Waiting For The Clouds (2003), Pandora’s Box (2008), and Araf (2012) to her credit, Ustaoglu draws on bare scenarios with interacting dichotomies, sombre mood, sharp cuts and expressionist landscapes.

In Clair Obscur, the dreams and nightmares of the women contrast with their waking turbulences; the winds and the sea rage ominously yet with solemn fervour.

Michael Hammon’s cinematography draws on the titular metaphor of the film and codes the film’s images in a chiaroscuro that delivers sharp commentaries on female sexuality and the spaces it rages, settles or gets caged in.

Elmas admits to suffocation, always bound by interiors — real or spectral — wherever she goes, with stormy gusts trying to break in. Sehnaz takes to the white expanse of the sea, its waves raging and beating against the rocky shore, embodying the turbulence within her. These contrasts continue to circle each other, pushing and pulling, interacting with the duality that connects them.

An intimate and caustic commentary on the spheres that women occupy in contemporary society and the haunting spectres of their dreams that inhabit these spaces and their bodies, Yesim Ustaoglu’s Clair Obscur is a slow burn that must be seen for the discomfort it causes in its viewers — a thought-provoking narrative about the binding character of contrast itself, the multiplicity of female experience, and the ionic bonds forged thereof.

Related topics

IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival