Every picture tells a story — just not necessarily the whole one. For the gormlessly duplicitous protagonists of “Album,” family snaps serve to construct memories rather than preserve them: They may be working through paper photo albums rather than Instagram or Facebook, but Turkish writer-director Mehmet Can Mertoğlu’s substantial debut feature can’t suppress a sneer at the very 21st-century practice of exhaustive yet evasively filtered self-documentation. That’s hardly the only modern malady under fire in this elegantly opaque social satire, which touches on bureaucratic ineptitude, class conflict and very questionable parenting in its elliptical tale of a dully respectable couple taking elaborate measures to conceal their adopted child’s provenance.
Romania, alongside Turkey and France, is a co-producing territory on this project, with “Child’s Pose” director Calin Peter Netzer among the names on a formidable production bench. (Ditto leading Bosnian auteur Danis Tanovic.) The country seems more than just a financial ally to “Album,” however: The rigorous influence of the much-vaunted Romanian New Wave, often characterized by its mordant humor in the face of institutional corruption, is clear here, as Mertoğlu walks an often surprisingly fine line between bitter realism and deadpan absurdism. Even the film’s somber, fine-wool visual textures — courtesy of Romanian cinematographer Marius Panduru’s deep-toned 35mm lensing, in varied, overlapped shades of burlap brown and office-carpet blue — explicitly recalls the movement’s austere, deliberately dulled beauty. (Panduru himself was the lenser behind Corneliu Porumboiu’s essential “Police, Adjective.”)
Such transnational trappings notwithstanding, “Album” is distinctively preoccupied with Turkish society, carving out delicate separations and tensions within the local population that won’t be immediately obvious to all viewers. That’s one reason among many — including Mertoğlu’s drily open-ended storytelling and knowingly resistible characters — that his auspicious debut, while set for healthy festival travel following its Cannes Critics’ Week bow, might not gain the distributor attention it merits. Indeed, the film’s establishing premise will seem far more notably eccentric to outsiders than to locals: In Turkey, where a sad social stigma is still affixed to infertility, it is reportedly not uncommon for adoptive parents to fabricate evidence of their non-biological child’s entry into the world.
For tax office worker Bahar (Şebnem Bozoklu) and history teacher Cüneyt (Murat Kiliç), that extends not just to methodically staged pregnancy photo shoots on the beach — complete with artificial bump, of course — but enlisting doctors and nurses at a local hospital to pose uncertainly with the couple’s newfound progeny in a maternity ward. In many senses, Bahar and Cüneyt seem more interested in validating the process of having a child than in having the child itself: In one breathtakingly cruel scene set at a wilting adoption agency, they reject the beaming baby girl offered to them — having already stated a dispassionate preference for a male child — on the basis of her skin tone. “I don’t like her much,” Bahar mutters. “She seems Syrian, like a Kurd.” Later, they complain to an aghast adoption officer that they felt “no social bond” with the baby: Is this otherwise mildly middle-class couple denying the girl a home out of spiteful racial prejudice, or a narcissistic desire for a child who could plausibly have sprung from their combined loins? At what point do those motivations become the same thing?
Bahar and Cüneyt’s aggressive pursuit of surface normalcy, ironically enough, may seem entirely sociopathic to some onlookers, though the system, as unflatteringly portrayed here, largely abets their charade — apathetically greasing the paperwork procedures involved, and granting Cüneyt’s request for a job transfer from the city of Antalya to distant Kayseri, where they can cultivate a fresh social circle with no awareness of their recent family planning. (That Cüneyt teaches history to schoolchildren is a rich detail considering his own blatant invention of a past.) It’s only late in the film, when they discover a legal record of their adoption in police files, that the two acknowledge any kind of potential permanence to the truth. “Album” never suggests what the consequences might be for the family if they stop running from, and around, the facts: Whether a genuine threat of social ostracization lurks in their polite, mall-going community, or whether their own snobbery has driven them to delusion, is one of the most teasing ambiguities of Mertoğlu’s terse script.
“Album” is more rewarding when it parses such everyday mysteries of human behavior than when it shoots for the patently surreal. A gliding pan across defeated civil servants (save for a wide-awake Bahar) asleep at their desks, while Cüneyt is conversely shown stoically sitting through raucous classroom antics, feels a bit too heavily pointed. A disconnected, initially bewildering opening sequence, meanwhile, gazes coolly upon a swift act of industrial bovine mating as the bull’s sperm is retained and a calf is later born: Framed and cut with aloof, minty precision, this wordless prologue comes to make on-the-nose sense as the film’s themes of biology and personal ownership emerge. Mertoğlu’s calmly tragic, unsmilingly funny film captures human nature harshly enough to render such symbolism extraneous.