Life for a woman like Elmas (Ecem Uzun) in Turkey is a living nightmare. An eighteen-year old all but sold to a willing husband (Serkan Keskin‘s Koca) much older than she to clean his house, give her mother-in-law (Sema Poyraz‘s Kaynana) across the hall insulin shots, and — marriage or not — get raped every night, she’s gradually losing her sense of identity and mind. She’s so young and unversed in the world that she makes a game out of folding the sheets atop their bed to see whether a coin will slide from one end to the other without hitting a fold. Elmas’ sole release is watching her neighbor in the adjacent building dance to pop music while sneaking a cigarette on the balcony when no one is looking.

This is the conservative Muslim life we in the western world believe women in the Middle East endure. You could say Donald Trump’s running on a platform that hinges upon this very “truth.” But it’s of course a gross generalization fed by the media’s insistence on highlighting our world’s hardships above breakthroughs. So while Yesim Ustaoglu‘s Clair Obscur does focus on Elmas’ plight, it crosscuts that lifestyle with the likes of modern woman Chehnaz (Funda Eryigit). This hospital psychiatrist roams the streets with head uncovered, has Skype sex with her boyfriend Cem (Mehmet Kurtulus) when he’s out of town, and seemingly enjoys all the pleasures of a twenty-first century woman in America. What we’ll soon discover, however, is that appearances are quite often deceiving.

Ustaoglu has written a wonderfully candid account of the conditions for females in a country like Turkey no matter your job or your avenue towards love. Whether your future was arranged by sanctimonious parents or chosen on your own, the chauvinistic upbringing of the male population isn’t something that can simply be ignored or overcome with patience. We know right from the start what kind of man Koca will prove despite his desire to be kind to Elmas. He’s a brute who believes he’s entitled to both everything he asks of his wife and everything he takes from her. Noticing these traits in Cem is more difficult, nuanced. His is an intrinsic disrespect, an ingrained notion that his apparent kindness is a gift given not a normal certainty.

You can ask yourself which is worse, but that would be a disservice to the real-life women currently living within these exact same situations. One isn’t better than the next because of differing levels of abuse or walking in with eyes open or closed. They’re both atrociously demeaning, dangerous, and vile. They both shine the male gender in a horrific light and can’t help but shine that light on men in America falling into the same types of patterns no matter how less augmented. The common denominator here is oppression of body, soul, and heart. Elmas and Chehnaz are each pushed to the brink. The difference is how entrenched they are within their respective circumstances and how far they must fight through psychological and physical barriers to escape.

It’s interesting to see where these differences diverge from one to the next. Elmas is deeper as far as her leaving being a life or death scenario, but Chehnaz is more invested in the relationship to continuously trap herself. Ustaoglu fearlessly depicts the former’s sex life as heinous crime and the latter’s as liberated sensuality. Koca physically harms his companion while Cem toys with his. Chehnaz watches her boyfriend with porn on the screen of his laptop instead of being in bed with her. She tries to mimic those actresses’ looks and attitude to spark something within him, but he can’t stop thinking about himself — in bed, choosing wine, or hypocritically demanding she answer her phone whenever he calls despite muting her without any need for explanation.

We watch tragic scenario after tragic scenario, both women growing smaller and smaller as the days go by. Eventually they converge, but I’ll leave this collision’s origins to the film. Just know that the moral complexities of what’s depicted never diminish and the torment never disappears. Ustaoglu will provide her leads a release as far as experiencing what they’ve been missing (safety and self-worth respectively amongst other common issues), Chehnaz giving Elmas a therapeutic outlet to speak pent-up frustrations aloud while Okan Yalabik‘s Umut shows Chehnaz that not all men are egotists. Their lives may not end happily as a result, but girls in bad relationships who are watching may reach an epiphany through the juxtaposition about happiness being possible if they can find the strength to fight.

Despite the sense of conservatism you may project upon a movie from Turkey (I can’t find confirmation in the press notes whether Clair Obscur was shot there, but I have to believe it was), Ustaoglu is hardly conservative in her subject matter. The sex scenes between Elmas and Koca are difficult to watch in their brevity and those between Chehnaz and Cem move from titillating to frustrating as control shifts from initiator to domineer. Nudity abounds, adultery occurs, and religious regulations are broken with the number of sins multiplying throughout. This is a film for the victims, to tell their story in raw detail (pain and pleasure) so as not to let the patriarchy censor human rights violations occurring behind closed doors. This isn’t melodrama — it’s real life.

The reason for this comes courtesy of Eryigit and Uzun’s stirring portrayals of women caught under generations of dominance. Eryigit’s Chehnaz is the more relatable character because she’s closest to an American in disposition and ambition, her struggles resonating via an authentic performance mired in quiet resentment and disappointment. The rising tempest of her disdain is wonderfully realized, the ensuing battle executed with breathless physicality. Uzun’s Elmas on-the-other-hand is devastating in her sense of the other. It’s hard to fathom that what’s done to her is possible in the twenty-first century and yet we know in our hearts it is. Uzun deteriorates into an exposed wire of emotional agony, her fear and rage culminating in heart-wrenching scenes depicting debilitating catharsis. When will humanity finally learn? Will it ever?

Clair Obscur is currently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival.

See our complete TIFF 2016 coverage.

Grade: A-

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