An auteur’s most demanding film: 'Singing Women'

An auteur’s most demanding film: 'Singing Women'

An auteur’s most demanding film: Singing Women

Reha Erdem’s ‘Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar’ has no linear narrative, nor a coherent story that leads to closure.

When auteur Reha Erdem’s latest anticipated feature, “Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar” (Singing Women), was pre-screened about a month ago, the reaction was instant on Twitter. The reviews in 140 characters or less were clear and with conviction. The audience either loved the movie or hated it. 

“Reha Erdem put his signature behind yet another masterpiece,” read one tweet, while another self-proclaimed Erdem fan was let down: “I am done with Reha Erdem. What was that all about?”

Erdem is a true auteur. From his first feature “A Ay” (Oh, Moon) of 1989 to “Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar,” it is very difficult to define his specific brand of cinema, or pin down to a specific genre or style. That said, devoted audiences are well aware of the recurring themes, bits and pieces unique to Erdem’s cinema.

Fixation on pains of adolescence is a major theme in Erdem’s cinema. Nostalgia for a place, more often Istanbul, and a depiction of that place devoid of any hope for its future takes screen time simultaneously. The loss of a sense of place and time also often defines his cinema. Cruelty of nature in all its nakedness is yet another recurring theme.

All of these take part in “Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar,” arguably Erdem’s most demanding film yet. The setting is one of the Princes’ Islands, off the coast of Istanbul. The place of Büyükada, familiar to many with its historic buildings, refreshing green areas, horses and horse-drawn carriages, soon turns into an unrecognizable place of illness, insanity and impending doom.

The islanders are evacuated due to the threat of a possible earthquake, a real threat hovering over the residents of Istanbul since the big earthquake in 1999, emptying their houses and taking off in city ferries. There are a few who refuse to leave the island and some who come from Istanbul and stay, all demented or broken in their own unique ways, making up the characters of the film.

An auteur’s most demanding film: Singing WomenAt the center of the movie, and connecting the characters, is Adem (Philip Arditti), a man physically, emotionally and morally bankrupt. Leaving behind his flight attendant wife, Adem comes back to his unwelcoming father, Mesut (Kevork Malikyan), who is living on the island. The story takes on a mythical and mystical turn with a bunch of female characters, the singing women of the title. 

The singing women of varying degrees of suffering are Adem’s wife (Aylin Aslım), who comes to the island to confront her husband and finds herself unable to leave; Mesut’s devoted housekeeper, Esma (Binnur Kaya), surviving through her intuitions rather than reasoning; and the homeless young girl Esma (Deniz Hasgüler), who has run away to the refuge of the island.

In the midst of this mix of eccentric characters’ interaction with one another is the earthquake scare, the mysterious illness taking the horses, and later the people, of the island. “Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar” has no linear narrative, nor a coherent story that leads to a closure. Stand-alone scenes of varying absurdity are connected by a narrator (Halit Ergenç) reciting lines from different religious texts. The narration helps build a hovering sense of loss in time, place and a coherent story, making the film even more unrelatable.

Reminiscent of ‘Kosmos’

“Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar” is most reminiscent of Erdem’s “Kosmos” of 2010, in which a deranged stranger drifts into a snow-ridden border town, once again familiar and all too new. Bringing a boy back to life (a similar scene is seen here as well), he unwittingly wins the admiration and respect of the town’s folks. He tells the town that his name is Battal. But for the object of his affection, the little boy’s sister, he becomes Kosmos. He finds that his feelings are reciprocated through their bizarre mating ritual, howling at one another across the river. 

Bizarre as it may sound, “Kosmos” was an exercise in carefully laying out each character, showing a deep affection for its characters. Similar in tone and style, “Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar” shows no sympathy for its character. The depth defining “Kosmos” is nowhere to be seen here, as characters turn into props in a journey into the darkness of the human heart. 

Choosing not to have a coherent story structure might not be to the taste of many an audience. But for Erdem fans, it is a reason for anticipation. “Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar” manages to alienate even some of the die-hard fans, as the film has been perceived by many as an exercise in vanity to see how far devoted fans are willing to go. For me, that journey seems to be over for now.

An auteur’s most demanding film: Singing Women