At first glance, it is unclear why Turkish writer-director Yesim Ustaoglu has set her sights on two vastly different women. By all accounts Chenaz (Funda Eryigit) is the embodiment of the modern Turkish woman. She has a successful career, working as a psychiatrist at a local hospital, and lives in a home with long-time partner (Mehmet Kurtulus).

In comparison, Elma (Ecem Uzun) is practically the poster-child for old time conservatism. Dutiful to her much older husband and her disapproving mother-in-law, Elma’s marriage more resembles a dictatorship. Suffocating under the pressure of the expectation and responsibilities thrusted on her, including tending to her ailing in-law and succumbing to her husband’s nightly sexual advances, Elma is pushed to the brink.

It is only when a traumatic event causes Chenaz and Elma’s lives to intersect that the full impact of Clair Obscur’s social study becomes clear. Ustaoglu effectively shows that both women are far more similar than they initially appeared on the surface. While Elma’s oppression, and subsequent envy of the freedom her peers have, is more pronounced, Chenaz soon realizes that her perfect relationship is anything but.

Ustaoglu uses the pair to paint a stirring portrait of a generation of women stifled by a patriarchal mentality that views them as tools rather than equals. For Chenaz this is a painful realization that comes slowly, as love blinded her from the warning signs in her relationship. Anchored by a strong performance from Funda Eryigit and the gorgeous cinematography work by Michael Hammon, Ustaoglu allows the tension to build at a leisurely pace. This not only lets the themes truly sink in, but also gives Ustaoglu several opportunities to catch the viewer off-guard with some truly uncomfortable and unexpectedly powerful moments. While not all of the shared scenes between Chenaz and Elma resonate the way they should, Clair Obscur still manages to provide a thought-provoking, and at times volatile, exploration of female identity.

Tuesday, September 13, 12:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday, September 16, 6:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox

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