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Contemporary Trends in Cinema

The Crypts in Pandora’s Box (by Yeşim Ustaoğlu)

Three siblings residing in different neighbourhoods in İstanbul; Nesrin (Derya Alabora), Güzin (Övül Avkıran) and Mehmet (Osman Onant) find out that their mother who lives alone in Western Black Sea has got lost, and they set off towards the village they were born in. Throughout the route, having not seen each other for a long time, they start to criticise one another and pour out what has been kept inside for years. Following a couple of arguments, they start to look for their lost mother together with the villagers. The mother (Tsilla Chelton) is found eventually; she was not in a good situation, though. Diagnosed as Alzheimer, the mother is taken to Istanbul. First, she is forced to stay with elderly sister, but she attempts to run away from the house. Stating an excuse of her family problems, Nesrin demands her younger sister Güzin to take care of the mother for some time. Güzin, without her consent, has to accept this, however, she sends the mother to her brother’s house as she wants to meet her affair. There, in Mehmet’s house, the son of Nesrin, Murat ( Onur Ünsal) who has just escaped from his own house due to his mother’s pressure stays too. Murat sees his grandmother after a very long time. Once Güzin takes the mother back to her house, she blames her for the failures in her own life. The mother’s attempt to flee one more time results in her being taken to a nursing home. When Murat visits his grandmother, they decide to get away from that place, too. And they happily go back to the village. Feeling the comfort in her house, Nusret always stares at the mountains and expressing her wish to go there. Murat, unwillingly accepts her offer, and the film finalises with her walking towards the mountains as he keeps watching her leaving.

Pandora’s Box, (Yeşim Ustaoğlu, 2008) refers to a mythos, where the ‘forbidden box’ is uncovered by Pandora and all the evils fly out, except for the felling of ‘hope’. In the film, this symbolic box is adapted into a family story and at the very beginning of the film the box is opened and and these crypts of family concept are to be revealed, leaving the spectators being exposed by their own ones, too. In one of her interviews, Ustaoğlu states “We are generally not a community who can face their problems. A little bit teenager society. Not a society who can face its own history and its today. It is pretty challenging for us.” I will try to analyse the film trying to focus on the family crypts that are covered and/or revealed.

In the film, there are three generations: middle age generation who seems to have stabilised their lives, and the previous generation who has a memory loss, having a problem in recording, and the young generation who is looking for the life and on the merge of choosing his own path. Here I would like to cite from the essay called “the Inner Crypt” by Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok on whose readings I will try to base my essay:

“The phantom can be transgenerationally transmitted, and it is with the help of this concept that the authors understand the family secret and its powerful effects: in the first generation, the secret is something that must never be revealed, unspeakable because of the pain and shame it would evoke. In the next generation, it becomes unmentionable, since the bearer derives its intuitive existence, but is ignorant to its content. For the third generation, it finally becomes unthinkable, a something that exists.”

Nusret, holding the unspeakable secret, resembles a spectre, who intrudes into the lives of the characters, all of whom are not so ready to host this haunt. In my opinion, the paradoxical structure of the ‘family memory’ is described in the core of the film. Nusret comes from the past, which has clearly been left behind by all others. However, she, who has lost her memory, seems ironically to remind the others what they have been kept inside. We can see that at the very beginning of the film: when all three siblings have an argument on the way to the village, their assumptions about the ‘lost father’ (who we never know if died or just ran away) are so contradicting each other. The lost father is clearly an enclave, which is a recurrent motive in all Ustaoğlu’s films. However, the director does not try to catch the attention into this point, which can also be read as a crypt of herself and/or her films. Rather, she insistently puts the mother into the centre. Nusret is clearly the protagonist of the film, who takes the role of mother and father at the same time, even if her success is open to discuss. At that point, we can state that she is the main plot mover who nudges the enclaves of all three siblings and she turns out to be a figure who evokes their awareness related to the unsolved problems in their isolated lives. Nusret, who does not speak at all, unexpectedly utters three very critical sentences to all her children at the climax scenes (which will be mentioned). These there sentences suddenly help us make a connection with their past and understand better the reasons behind. The crypts of all characters are revealed at least at some point by Nusret, the spectre.

Although the film’s frame is around the facing a sick mother, the main point is unfolding the negativities related to family notion. The relations among the family members, the distance among the siblings catch the attention to the point of alienation experienced by these members towards their mother, son, siblings, and themselves at most. Somehow, three siblings cannot replace their mother into their lives, they clearly run away from their pasts, indulged in daily lives, yet having the burdens on past on their shoulders. One can suggest that these things are not necessary in life, one does not have to be connected to the past etc. It would be if they did not have these crypts inside, or if they dare to face these enclaves and accept them. However, in this film, no siblings seems to do this, and they are keeping on struggling without liberation. To me, the film suggests the family crypts that are escaped from will be by your side, and pops up anytime in your life. At this point, I would like to examine each character so as to support my thesis.

Nesrin, the older sister, has obsessive characteristics. She is obsessed with controlling everybody, and everything. A strictly protectionist mother, trying to prove that she will be a successful mother unlike her own mother, however, her son’s escape shows that she is also a failure as a mother. She seems she has lost her libido, having no signs that she is enjoying life. Having also problems with her husband, she puts the ‘musts’ as her priorities in life. At first, she seems she has dealt with her Oedipus complexes, as she is the oldest and the only one having ended up with a marriage. However, we can observe that, her self accusation (especially related to being an successful mother or not having a sexual relation with the husband) reveals that she has her own crypts, which are unmentionable. Her mother utters: “Your birth was so difficult to me, you were stick to me and you now want everyone to stick to you.” She seems to have melancholia, which reveals itself in her ‘cathexis’ to the loved objects (especially on her son), and repeated weepings when she cannot control the the people and thus her ego is harmed. Actually, she does not have any trust to herself or the other people around. Also, she wants everybody to be in her ‘home’ just to control them. She is living in a residence, protected and surrounded like a castle, and her character is like that place, too. The place is like a prison and she is the guardian there, with all her strict rules. However, her son rejects that prison and runs away, just like the mother who even pees into her living room, and runs away. Her tough feelings of so called responsibility to keep the family together ends up with a self accusation and lack of self respect; which can be observed in the cases of melancholia. At the end, she bursts into tears and telling the husband that she worries if he will leave her, too. This is the first time that she opens herself, and speaking from the heart, however, the husband says “he cannot live without her”. To me, it proves that her narcissistic character can only be welcome by a dependent one. And her ego is harmed more, and she weeps. In the prison that she has built for herself and the others, she feels the lack of what is out and missing. Her constant yelling at the sister makes me think that she is jealous about her life, which seems more loose and unpredictable to her. Her trials to control everyone and being stick to them shows that she has still carrying the crypts about her mother for whom she rejects to cut the ‘funicle’.

Güzin, the middle sister, seems to be in depression, which can differ from the elderly sister’s case. It is clear she has not lost her self respect unlike her sister. However, she is a journalist, which makes her seem more liberated. However, we can never claim that she is happy with her job, actually we never witness her reading or writing. In addition, she does not have proper relationships, having an unhappy affair with a married man, always pondering and blaming the others for the failures in her life. The reason for her forbidden and infertile relationships can be result of her losing the father just in the state of oedipus conflicts if we like to refer to Freud. To me, she is definitely ‘anasemic’ with the words of N. Abraham; she never truly speaks from the heart either, looking away when talking; she just laughs at one scene, which is interrupted with a deep crying. It can be stated she has a mother issue, but this issue is different from her Nesrin. Once she honestly faces the mother and yells at her, and they hug each other, and she calms down. Her mentionable crypts that come from the previous generation get resolved at some point when they are signified. After her mother advises her “to open her heart, not to be like her”, we see her for the first time attempting to solve her problems with the affair, and her job. In my opinion, once she signifies the things she has been keeping inside, she gets relieved, which proves that she was in the period of “introjection” about the mother issue. And, she has dared to face the mother, and the crypts that she evoke in her. She eventually has not swallowed the things inside and that saved her from melancholia, unlike the elder sister. Of course, she might have still other crypts, however, the film wants to show us that at least she dares to stand up against her life, and we see her walking towards the life, which she was not doing at the beginning.

Mehmet, the youngest brother, seems to live in the zero point. Having lost his ties with the life, he chooses just to stop, unlike the sisters. His sisters blame him for being a ‘parasite’, he is unemployed and always smokes weed, and plays the guitar. He may seem a negative character, having no ambitions in life, however, we never see him criticising others; he just gets angry when being criticised. As he is the youngest one and has no true opinion about the lost father, one can claim that he has lost the ‘identification object’ before he becomes mature enough. This oedipus complexes can be the result of his lack of motivation to resist the life. Compared to his sisters, however, he is more coherent about his behaviours. And, he is more into the life; he can communicate with the villagers much more easily when his sisters keep away from even talking. What’s more, he can chat and laugh with the mother, unlike his sisters. To me, he is open enough to introject the things, and thus saving himself from the incorporation. He does not swallow any opinions, he is just there, living in the present tense. His crypts are also revealed by the mother who does not speak that much. When Mehmet claims he has never left behind anyone, his mother says “after you turned your back to me and to life”.

As for Murat who is the youngest character in the film, he seems to be surrounded by every opportunity in life, a caring mother, a financially-supporter father, private school, etc. However, unlike this stereotype of the young in most middle class families, he rejects this 'comfort zone’, and runs away from ‘this prison’, the circled zone. He once opens his crypts about his father saying that ‘I don’t want to be like you’. Whenever he escapes from the house, he stays with Mehmet who never criticises or sets rules to him. It can be claimed he chooses the uncle as the role model, however, he does not for sure. He is in search of the life in my opinion. He is not a character who can turn his back to the life. His most honest speech is done just after he is seizured and threatened with a knife. “I have felt my veins, they have been there, but I have never felt before’ he says. Following this scene, he meets his grandmother, and for the first time we see him smiling deeply. Having finally found a purpose of life, from now on, he never lets her alone, and tries to make her wishes come true. Actually, Murat is the only one who resists against the masks all the three siblings have been wearing , by protecting themselves and running away from their family, past, and thus themselves. He is the only one who succeeds in communicating with his grandmother and proving that his caring about the human being is real. He takes the role as a saviour in Nusret’s life, by helping her rescue from her children’s life where she does not belong and cannot find peace. He takes Nusret back to her village, and lets her go to the mountain. For me, she goes there to wait for the death. Or it can be her own crypt, as the father is lost there according to an assumption. What is important here is that: Murat dares to see her leaving, he finally succeeds in something for the first time in his life. It clearly needs a big courage to see a beloved off. In my opinion, here lies the hope which is kept in the box. It is the hope for Murat to live and go on. No matter if he will go on staying in the village, or go back to Istanbul, the spectators have the feeling of hope for his ongoing journey. We need to note here that Murat’s returning to the village can be read as an urban and suburb dualism, however, when we see the struggles he has there, such as failing in lighting, and washing his grandmother’s dirty underwear, we cannot suggest that the director appraises the rural life, instead of urban one. It is the life itself which is praised. There is still a hope for the life where there is the inner peace, healthy communication, and no alienation among the individuals. And only Murat seems promising about achieving this.

“Lost ideals, flights from reality, prejudices, the hypocratic family concept and the crisis it bares, borrowed relationships, lack of communication, being isolated and all related to human beings are kept there in Pandora’s Box.” These are the words of the director. The family, especially the middle class family has various crypts inside, and the hectic lives of the individuals make us so indulged in our lives, where we dare no ties, or connection. However, all of us are keeping our boxes closed, maybe the keys are lost, and maybe we we are hiding them from ourselves. To me, the film suggests to welcome the crypts of our lives, dare to face what we have left behind which we can never be left actually. Because the crypt has no time notion. It can visit us anytime.


Abraham, Nicolas and Maria Torok. The Shell and the Kernel. Ed. Trans. Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago & London: University of Chicago P. 1994

Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation", Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel, Chicago & London: University of Chicago P. 1994.

Mourning and Melancholia", Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works.

"Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok – The inner crypt", Maria Yassa, Scandinavian Psychoanalytical Review (2002) 25, nr. 2.

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