Yesim Ustaoglu’s Araf, which accurately translates to Purgatory, arrives at this year’s New York Film Festival with the not-quite-helpful subtitle Somewhere in Between, while a 2006 horror film, also with the same name, went by the English title The Abortion. Ustaoglu’s film, her fifth feature in a career that stretches back to the mid 1980s, isn’t really about either purgatory or abortion. That is, not right away, and not directly. Despite the film’s crippling problems, credit is due Ustaoglu for playing a kind of zero-card monte, hiding her thematic preoccupations, which are fatally tedious and careworn, for as long as possible. There’s a pre-title sequence that bodes ill for what’s to come: Two un-introduced male characters watch molten slag as it’s poured into a railyard, say “Fuck you” to each other, and the camera executes an unmotivated dolly back while the focus resolves on the backs of their heads. Following this is a long, leisurely paced series of cross-cuts between a girl who serves food at a highway rest stop, a boy who flirts with her, and a trucker who’ll eventually steal her heart—and her virtue.
Spoilers follow. As if to lure cultural commentators and critics to conclude that, in order to gain any kind of international notice, a Turkish auteur must show that they’ve been heavily influenced by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Araf is top-heavy with Ceylan-esque business. At least during the first two thirds, every third shot either shows off the land’s beautiful desolation, or has one of the main characters gazing dead-eyed through a windowpane. Once again, it isn’t clear right away that Ustaoglu’s faux-Ceylan shtick, which is executed with unimpeachable sobriety, has anything to do with pandering to festival audiences and critics, for whom extra-long takes, minimal dialogue, elegant yet static compositions, and working-class settings come together to represent a fully validated art-house passport. When it becomes clear, by way of sly (but increasingly blunt) tip-offs through the story’s long, long, long second act, that Ustaoglu has camp in her tiny, diabolical heart, it’s too late.
But let’s be clear. We’re not talking about Sirk camp, John Waters camp, De Palma camp, or even Revenge camp. Using a love triangle that’s older than the hills (but resembles, very roughly, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter), Ustaoglu’s brand of hothouse horrors, inevitably, is closest to a certain Lee Daniels, he of the School of Schlock Visceralism, or truth by way of assaulting the audience with fluids, misery, and sound effects that warrant no further elaboration. Do you remember when Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days saved its visual reveal for the end of the film, and had treated such disclosures with great restraint, and was all the more sad and gut-wrenching due to said restraint? Taking a page from the Daniels playbook, Ustaoglu’s heroine, Zehra (Neslihan Atagül), who may or may not have induced a crude abortion with measuring tape (pretty much how that sounds), has a miscarriage more or less in real time in the bathroom at the emergency room, and, after due consideration of her options, chucks the corpse out the window.
This isn’t some 11th-hour spike in the EKG. Araf has been ramping things up with a lot of Very Significant business, underlining the hatred between Zehra’s piss-and-vinegar beau and his father, introducing a pistol in the third act (an almost comical flaunting of Chekhov’s famous decree), and serving up not one but two depressively somber sex scenes. It goes without saying that Ustaoglu has, by the time Zehra and her mother repair to the ER to see about a tummy ache, jettisoned her initial pretense to art-house credibility. Chucked it out the window, you might say. Not that it matters, since any goodwill earned by the slightly endearing, slightly amateurish Ceylan-lite that makes up the movie’s first act has long since been squandered by the viewer’s increasing certainty that Araf isn’t merely wandering but marking time with cynical, halfhearted feints toward verisimilitude: the earmarks of a monotonous life, the early-Fellini-esque shenanigans of a pair of young good-for-nothings, the occasional bouts of small-town asphyxiation, the yearning for greater things, etc. It’s hard to believe that the same Yesim Ustaoglu who started the picture is the same one who steers it, as if drunk, straight into gonzo territory.