Confine two insecure couples engaged in various forms of deception in one sparsely furnished apartment, and angst-ridden tension is bound to result. Such is the case for lovers Ender and Gül, and their married friends Veli and Selda, whose dysfunctional relationship issues play out over a ten year period in Ümit Ünal’s ARA (Turkish trailer here), screening Friday at the New York Turkish Film Festival.
Given the unpleasant memories it holds for her, Gül has mixed feelings about the Istanbul apartment left to her by her grandmother, but keeps it for the revenue she earns renting it to film crews in need of a domestic set. It also makes for a convenient location for parties, romantic assignations, and other clandestine meetings, but it is a cold, loveless place, much like the larger spiritual vacuum the characters inhabit.
After years spent in Paris, Gül returned to Turkey, where she becomes romantically attached to Ender, who resembles a sort of Turkish Ricky Gervais or Jason Alexander without the sense of humor. His best friend and business partner, Veli, married Ender’s childhood friend Selda. On the surface, the two happy couples appear to be perfect friends. However, Gül suspects Ender is sleeping with Selda, which he is, while Ender suspects Veli has designs for Gül. Actually, Veli’s eye is wandering elsewhere, but they do share confidences that are quite intimate. There are many deep-seated issues undermining these relationships, not the least being a case of closeted homosexuality, which ARA addresses quite frankly.
Inspired by Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, ARA does not precisely parallel the play’s time-in-reverse structure, instead freely skipping back and forth through its ten year period. With nearly the entire film restricted to one set, ARA might sound stagey, but Ünal’s direction draws the viewer in quite effectively. However, several times he drops hints that appear to foreshadow impending violence, which in fact never materialize (at least in a physical sense). Along with an ending that feels somewhat abrupt, this impression of unfulfilled menace leaves the audience off-balance and somewhat confused. However, the brief clips of the commercials and low budget features filmed in the apartment interspersed between each scene, create an intriguing “if-these-walls-could-talk” effect.
Selen Uçer’s Gül is a convincing portrait of desperation and uncertainty. However, as Ender, Ender Akakçe’s constant bombast seems a bit off pitch. In contrast, Serhat Tutumluer gives a nicely understated performance as the conflicted Veli and Betül Çobanoğlu brings surprising nuance to the seemingly immature Selda.
While ARA lays bare the fears and anxieties of its characters, it is ultimately a more intellectual than emotional viewing experience. It screens at Anthology Film Archives this Friday, with lead actress Uçer and director Ünal in attendance.