I have a somewhat ambiguous relationship to the work of Orhan Pamuk. I have read only two of his novels: My Name is Red, which I loved, and Snow, which I really struggled with. But we have all of his books because Maureen loves them.

Which is a way of saying that I have not read The Museum of Innocence. Nor have I been to Istanbul (much as I would love to do so), and so I have not visited the Museum of Innocence that Pamuk set up with the money from his Nobel Prize, though I have flicked through the book about the museum that Pamuk produced a few years back. (As I write this, an exhibition related to the Museum of Innocence is on in London; we are intending to go, but have not done so yet.) I therefore approached Innocence of Memories in a state of, yes, innocence.

What I saw was enchanting.

museum of innocenceInnocence of Memories is described as a documentary, but that is to do the film an injustice. Better, I think, to describe it as a reverie. There is no narrator, there is no narrative in the sense that we expect of non-fiction film. The camera moves restlessly through the back streets of Istanbul at night; occasionally, it latches onto a taxi driver, a ferryman, a rag-picker, an actress, who tells us something about their relationship to the city. There is a long and fascinating interview with Pamuk. We saw Pamuk being interviewed in London once, some years back, but in this interview, in Turkish with English subtitles, he is far more animated and expansive. But we do not see the interview whole, or directly. Rather, we approach the interview obliquely, glimpsing it almost in passing on a grainy black and white television in a shop window, a coffee shop, a barber’s, a seedy hotel room, a taxi rank. The interview is not the focus of the film, the core around which it is built, but rather an incidental commentary upon Istanbul at night.

Pamuk Confession

Pamuk keeps turning up in the film, but almost accidentally, as if it doesn’t really have anything to do with him. In the very first shot of the film the camera is set up static in a large darkened room whose generous picture windows frame a magnificent panorama of the city. A figure walks into the shadowy room, turns on a table lamp, and walks out of the frame again. We do not see him clearly, but that was Pamuk. At the very end of the film, we return to the same room; Pamuk walks across the frame and turns off the light, then begins to pull the curtains closed. Between these bookends, there are two or three occasions when the camera, restlessly prowling the narrow and vertiginous lanes, happens upon two men regarding the scene. This is Pamuk and his bodyguard, always seen from the back. Occasionally, also, we glimpse a figure through distorting glass, or look over a shoulder at hands turning the pages of a pad filled with handwriting. This is the sum of Pamuk’s appearance in the film; except in the black and white television interview (and that is always unstable) we do not see his face or hear his voice.

I said there is no narrator, which is true in the sense that there is no one explaining what we see. There is, however, a voice over, which is not the same thing. Pandora Colin speaks the part of Ayla, a minor character in the novel. She was a friend of the novel’s central figure, Fusun, at the start of the period covered by the novel. Afterwards, she left Turkey, but has now returned, and wandering around the old neighbourhood happened to discover the Museum of Innocence in the house that had once been Fusun’s home.

Alternating between the exhibits in the museum and wandering the streets of the city, Ayla then tells us the story of the novel. Or rather, she has read Pamuk’s book, and wants to correct some of the things he got wrong or missed out. The sense is that Pamuk knew the people involved (at one point in the film, telling the story of Kemal’s engagement party at the Hilton Hotel, the big symbol of Westernisation in Istanbul in the 1970s, we learn that Pamuk danced with Fusun), and that his book, The Museum of Innocence, is non-fiction. In fact, so convincingly was this conceit maintained throughout the film that by the end I wasn’t altogether sure that the book wasn’t non-fiction.

Museum of Innocence coverThe story tells of the relationship between Kemal and Fusun between the early 70s and the mid-80s. They meet when Fusun is in her late teens and Kemal, already engaged, is in his late 20s. They begin a passionate affair, going to bed together at a time when this was frowned upon by conservative Istanbul society. Through it all, Kemal does not break up with his fiancee, but when Fusun attends the engagement party (where she dances with Pamuk) she learns the truth and disappears from his life. At this point, Kemal realises how much he really loves her, breaks up with his fiancee and seeks out Fusun, only to discover that she has married in the interim. There begins a long platonic friendship that eventually grows into a love affair once more. But just at that point, Fusun is killed in a car crash. Kemal now sets about creating his Museum of Innocence, gathering together every item he can find which has any connection to Fusun, even down to the butts of every cigarette she smoked after they had made love.

All of this is laid out in Ayla’s voice over (with occasional comments from Mehmet Ergen as Kemal), but we see it always in the context of the city: the alleyways, the ricketty old buildings with boarded windows and flaking paint, the stores where they shopped, the seedy hotel rooms where they met, the dogs in the street, the lights and more tellingly the darkness, the political turmoil in the background. It doesn’t take long to forget that this is the story of two people (a sexual liaison that really isn’t all that unusual), instead it becomes a hymn to the city, a glorious meditation on place and time.

It is a film in love with Istanbul, and it is glorious.