Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk makes his second major foray into writing for cinema with “Innocence of Memories,” this time in partnership with British director Grant Gee. The fruit of their collaboration, inspired by Pamuk’s 2008 novel, “The Museum of Innocence,” is neither strictly factual nor complete fiction: A physical and psychological journey through Istanbul, it mixes imagined narratives with real-world observation, and a fictional narrator’s recollections with self-reflexive commentary. Marketing may prove a puzzle for a product that is neither fish nor fowl, but the pedigree of the filmmakers cannot be doubted.
Best known as the helmer of such stylish rock docs as “Joy Division” and Radiohead’s “Meeting People Is Easy,” Gee proves an apt partner for Pamuk — who previously scripted 1991’s Turkish-lingo romance “Gizli Yuz” — in this new exploration of city and psyche. Like Gee’s well-received 2011 doc, “Patience: After Sebald,” his latest takes as its starting point an acclaimed psychogeographical novel: “The Museum of Innocence” follows Kemal, aged 30 and engaged to be married, as he embarks on an affair with his 18-year-old cousin, Fusun. When the affair breaks down, he begins documenting their time together via a sprawling collection of ephemera.
Dealing as it does with the sensual experience of places and objects just as much as people and their interactions, one challenge this subgenre of literature and cinema will always face is the difficulty of truly evoking — whether on paper or on screen — the sensations of taste, touch and smell. The core belief driving both Pamuk’s novel and Gee’s film is the Proustian notion that the seemingly intangible force of human memory is located in textures, scents and physical objects.
The Museum of Innocence is now a real museum in Istanbul (funded using Pamuk’s Nobel Prize winnings), as well as a place conjured between the pages of Pamuk’s fictional narrative. In both the novel and in real life, it’s a collection of souvenirs that, taken together, tell the story of the affair: thousands of lipsticked cigarette butts left by one of the lovers, an earring, a dress. It all amounts to the obsessively hoarded debris of a relationship, but this is also the anthropological story of the city at that time and the preoccupations of its culture: Westernization, changing gender roles, the prominence of religion.
As befits a documentary less interested in practical fact than emotional insight, Gee’s camera becomes a nocturnal flaneur, stalking the city’s winding streets in low light, interacting with night workers of all kinds, seeing them as valves or organs in the great organic machinery of the city. A man who works collecting rags and other discarded rubbish expresses his preference for night work: People at night look down on him less.
Depth is perhaps the stumbling point for “Innocence of Memories.” Its ideas are plentiful, but their treatment at times seems to skim the surface. As we pass by the residential windows of Istanbul, an interview with Pamuk is shown through fleeting glimpses of TV screens in living rooms — a device that adds greatly to the intended sense of meandering through the city on an idiosyncratic derive, but at the expense of anything more indelible than a diverting series of sketches. This on-the-fly approach is certainly atmospheric, while Gee admirably escapes the visual strictures of talking-head interviews, but viewers may be left wanting a little more substance.
It’s an occupational hazard of rambling psychogeography that the unwary traveller will find themselves irritated as often as they are enthralled: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Gee negotiates this hurdle with variable success. At its best, his film distills the appeal of the novel. Elsewhere, it falls prey to the same criticisms that can be leveled at the book — not least the fact that the woman supposedly at its heart is defined mostly by her beauty and her absence.
Is this a knowing comment on the male protagonist and the way he fetishizes the objects that define his lover? It’s a case that can plausibly be made for the book, but it’s perhaps harder to justify in the film, given the broader range of perspectives offered — despite the elevation of a minor female character to the position of narrator, with new writing from Pamuk. This aspect in particular feels like a missed opportunity to expand the novel’s field of vision: She’s reduced to repeatedly saying “I read that … ” before essentially repeating sections of the book’s male-driven prose, her voice an unpersuasive cipher for a male lover’s perspective.
In British director’s Gee’s home country, a Museum of Innocence exhibition at London’s Somerset House — staged to coincide with the theatrical release — will aid U.K. distrib Soda in what is otherwise something of a marketing conundrum, despite ample fest exposure at Venice, Rotterdam and beyond. A tight screen count, plus filmmaker Q&A sessions, should also work in its favor.