A desultory dishwasher with a striking resemblance to a colleague’s imprisoned husband assumes his identity in Tayfun Pirselimoglu’s absorbing but overextended “I’m Not Him.” Sticking to the helmer’s resolutely minimal style (“Haze,” “Hair”), which emphasizes the sullen isolation of modern man, the pic features two performances whose strength goes some way toward staunching the effect of Pirselimoglu’s ultra-slow, almost deadening sequences. Viewers already won over to new Turkish cinema’s deliberate pacing will gather around, making “I’m Not Him” a fest item with appeal to a pre-prepared core audience.
With his French bulldog features locked in an eternally impassive scowl, Ercan Kesal (“Mold” and several Nuri Bilge Ceylan pics) is the ideal vessel to portray Nihat, a solitary kitchen hand in a hospital cafeteria. Work buddies get him to join their evening excursion with a roadside prostitute, but it’s Nihat who gets nabbed when the law shows up. He’s thrown in the slammer for a night, where his cellmate gets viciously beaten by a cop for banging his shoe against the bars; Nihat gives him a couple of kicks for good measure, presumably so that Pirselimoglu can fully convey the figure’s nihilism.
At work, Nihat is invited by Ayse (Maryam Zaree, “Shahada”) to her home for dinner; she’s an odd bird of uncertain motivation with a husband, Necip, jailed for forgery. She also has a reputation as a slut (perhaps that’s why lubrication isn’t needed when they do the nasty?). When Nihat sees a photo of Necip, he’s struck by how much they look alike — if he only shaved off his moustache, they could be identical twins.
Ayse and Nihat quickly fall into a mutually amenable routine: She gives him keys to the car and apartment, and, at least at her home, they become increasingly like a married couple. He even drives her to visit Necip in prison. Then something happens to Ayse, and Nihat, suddenly unmoored, shaves off his moustache and takes on Necip’s identity.
It’s a fascinating premise, conceived with a degree of quirky mystery, as well as an underlying humanity that would feel phony if all were “normalized.” More, however, is wanted from Ayse’s character, who remains too much of a cipher; her desire for a partner, and attraction to someone looking just like her husband, are understandable, but she gets no reciprocal joy out of the unforthcoming Nihat and has to work for every ounce of companionship. Zaree’s appeal is so strong, her moments of happiness so vivid (at times it’s like Ayse is a little girl playing house), that the role works despite the missing dimensions.
Nihat is equally unknowable: Perhaps it’s because his personality develops that the inability to see inside his head feels less problematic. Once he adopts Necip’s persona, he becomes more talkative, his passivity tempered by curiosity and a sense of direction, even if he doesn’t know where it’s taking him. Kesal is one of the most distinctive performers in Turkish cinema, and his brute solidity, combined with the certainty that there’s more than meets the eye, makes Nihat intriguing from beginning to end, notwithstanding the film’s overstretched passages.
Pirselimoglu’s fascination with the idea of becoming someone else, expressed in other works including his novels, reaches its apogee here, and in interviews he’s allowed that the issue of identity — lost, reclaimed, stolen — can be seen as a metaphor for Turkey today. However it’s to be read, “I’m Not Him” is visually arresting, combining the helmer’s distinctly minimalist, semi-frozen vision with the masterful lensing of Theo Angelopoulos’ longtime d.p, Andreas Sinanos. Each person seems to exist in extra-temporal isolation; backgrounds are carefully calibrated to offset the figures, such as the pale yellow of Nihat’s living room, and a melancholy clarinet discreetly complements the tone.