(France, Romania, Turkey 2020; Dir: Serhat Karaaslan)

The Criminals

Sinful Intimacy

review by Līga Požarska

The Criminals

original title: Les Criminels

length: 24

year of production: 2020

country of production: France, Romania, Turkey

director: Serhat Karaaslan

production: Laure Dahout, Laura Musat

director of photography: Tudor Mircea

editing: Nathan Delannoy

sound: Utku Insel, Marius Leftãrache, Charli Masson, Samy Bardet

music: Charli Circus

cast: Deniz Altan, Lorin Merhart, Erdem Senocak, Ercan Kesal, Cem Baza

festivals: Sundance 2021, Go Short 2021, SXSW 2021, Vienna Shorts 2021, The Norwegian Short Film Festival 2021, Brussels Short Film Festival 2021

© images: The Criminals (Serhat Karaaslan)

Dating without strings attached is considered a felony, at least so in Serhat Karaaslan’s psychological thriller ‘The Criminals’ which world premiered at Sundance this year. In a small Turkish town, Nazli and Emre’s quest for some alone time turns into an ordeal when the hotel staff forbids them to reserve a room because they are not married. Three men stand in their way: two hotel receptionists and a security guard. Each deems themselves an extension of law and order: the state police, the church and the family institution altogether. Sin-prevention-warriors, if you will.

These warriors will not negotiate (“no marriage certificate, no room”) and act violently — their torture is both physical and emotional. Above all, they are hypocritical. The guard, who acts as a prude and a lawful union militant, is morbidly aroused by two youngsters’ lovemaking. Yet, affter brutally breaking into Nazli’s room, he bullies the couple into “continuing what they’ve started” in front of him. “I’m not looking,” he guarantees corruptedly. Equally corrupted is the promise of intimacy usually associated with the hotel premises. These hotel walls transform into a cage, symbolizing the utter control of the surveillance society and civil freedoms oppressed by an authoritarian regime.

In ‘The Criminals’ doors hold a significant physical and allegorical function. The two attempts to lock Nazli in emphasize the patriarchal ruling over women’s freedom of choice. The first receptionist proposes two separate rooms under the condition that he locks the girl up. The second receptionist prevents Nazli from exiting by brutally shutting the doors on her way out. The doors serve as means of discipline, the doorways as a sign of danger. Note how gradually the security guard is introduced; first, we see approaching footsteps (through the door gap), then the guard appears through a barely opened door slit. Half of his face is covered by the shadow; the visible half twisted into a menacingly calm grimace. Less mad, but as terrifying as Jack Torrance’s grin through the door hole in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.

In collaboration with the director of photography Tudor Mircea, editor Nathan Delannoy has established a frightening rhythm, accelerating the tension with nuanced warnings of threat. For instance, before identifying the face of the first receptionist, the viewer has seen his legs (walking down the stairs), heard his voice and observed the couple from his point of view (over the shoulder shot). By marking his presence, yet not instantly revealing his face, we anticipate that something seems fishy.

There is something odd about the shot where the ill-lit hallway is contrasted with glimmering red light, as if it was a security camera. These shots are similar to the videos where a thief is caught on tape stealing liquor from the local night shop. For example, when Emre takes the elevator to visit Nazli’s room, the shot is a bit grainy, somewhat elliptic and from above – the surveillance camera’s point of view. The only emitted sound is the buzzing of the camera. Furthermore, once Emre succeeds in entering Nazli’s room, the shot still lingers outside (as a steady security camera should) registering kissing noises on the other side of the door. This visual approach serves as a reminder that they are closely watched. A young couple in a hotel is considered more outrageous than a liquor thief in a night shop.

Being a modern couple in a conservative setting makes Nazli and Emre criminals. Even the witnesses, a middle-aged couple at the hotel reception, partake in condemning them by remaining silent to the girl’s screams for justice. Possibly a part of Nazli believes that she’s indeed a lawbreaker: she lies to her controlling mother about her whereabouts and is frightened about her father finding out about the incident. Yet, her mom has already been notified that her daughter is not in the dorms, which demonstrates the wide privacy invading network established by her parents.

The couple’s affection is palpable. Karaaslan has created a tender portrait of young love: gentle and supportive, passionate and playful. Unfortunately, sneaking around in a conservative environment is less exciting than in a liberal one. In their society, Nazli and Emre’s secret rendez-vous is taboo by default, not by deliberate choice to spice things up. It is not only them. In an interview for Arte the director says that a true story was the first impulse for this script. In the hands of Karaaslan this story has transformed into a gripping juxtaposition between a claustrophobic thriller and social commentary.

Despite a fortunate escape from the situation, the seeds of fear are planted and the first sprouts of intimidation appear soon after. While engaging in some public display of affection at a diner, Emre’s eyes catch something out of the camera’s sight. He immediately stops kissing his girlfriend’s caressing hand. The virtue police have eyes everywhere.