Istanbul on film: The Girl on the Bridge
With its landscape and architectural diversity, Istanbul has always been an inspiration for artists. It is no surprise that when cinema emerged in Turkey, the city played a significant role not only as the country’s movie industry center but also a location for various local and foreign films.

By Agata Trojak

Apart from great interest of the Yeşilçam-era filmmakers (the most successful period of Turkish cinema, from the 1950s to the 1980s), numerous foreign productions have been shot in the city. Most have focused on landmark locations such as the Grand Bazaar and the Bosphorus, well-known icons. Istanbul has featured in three separate James Bond films – From Russia with Love (1963), The World is Not Enough (1999), and Skyfall (2012).

Not as well known, but worth the attention, is the representation of Istanbul in the French film La Fille Sur le Pont (The Girl on the Bridge) by Patrice Leconte (1999). Leconte’s film is a charming black-and-white love story, shot not only in Paris, Athens, and San Remo, but also in the Old City of Istanbul.

Still from The Girl on the Bridge

The film tells the story of Adele (Vanessa Paradis), a desperate and naive girl, who has bad luck with men and wants to feel loved by anyone she can find. She meets Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a middle-aged nomad, who throws knives in a circus professionally. Adele, disappointed with her bad experiences, is about to end her miserable life in the Seine when she meets Gabor. He convinces her to become a target for his knife throwing performances. As the pair travels together around the circuses of Europe, their platonic connection grows into a deep and intense love – until they suddenly separate when Adele runs away with another man. Gabor, deserted, ends up alone in crowded Istanbul.

The city is the backdrop to a suffering and heartbroken protagonist. Gabor gets rid of his knives, and spends his time walking around dark Istanbul streets, taking a job advertising the sleazy Çingene disco by standing on the street in a grotesque costume. Here the attentive eye of an Istanbul fan can spot one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar, or admire the landscape of Eminönü just after Gabor’s arrival in the city. The shot of Eminönü is followed by a comic scene of a characteristic mustachioed officer stamping Gabor’s passport. Careful viewers may also note signs for “Mis Hamamı” and “Arzum Büfe.” Here Leconte does not differ much from other foreign directors, by setting the action in the most popular districts. He emphasizes what seems to a European audience Istanbul’s exotic character by using Turkish folk music – the song “Hicaz oyun havasi,” performed by the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble.

The Örücüler entrance to the Grand Bazaar

Ahmet Gürata, chair of the Communication and Design Department at Bilkent University and a contributing author to World Film Locations: Istanbul told The Guide Istanbul that Leconte probably wanted to use a bit of “the Orient,” as it is a fairly typical representation of Istanbul. “But then again it’s also dark and claustrophobic,” Gürata says. “Gabor gets lost in the city, so maybe it’s a diversion from this oriental stereotype, and a kind of interesting mixture of those two approaches.”

The final scene takes place on the Galata Bridge. Mirroring the beginning of the film, this time it is the desperate Gabor on the bridge – he has realized that he can’t live without his beloved Adele and decides to end his lonely life. Galata Bridge, as an obvious romantic meeting point, was chosen to end the film as it began, in surroundings filled with water and the reflection of city lights. This landmark has been portrayed in many international and Turkish films including The International (2009) directed by Tom Tykwer, Oh Beautiful Istanbul (Ah Güzel Istanbul, 1981) by Ömer Kavur, Journey to the Sun (Günese Yolculuk, 1999) by Yeşim Ustaoğlu or Zombie and the Ghost Train (Zombie ja Kummitusjuna, 1991) by Mika Kaurismäki. Gürata points out that audiences have got used to seeing it as a sort of the entry point to the city, though this has no logical sense. “If you arrive in Istanbul by train, you get out at Sirkeci, so the bridge should be seen from the historical center towards Galata Tower, but usually it’s represented from the opposite way, which is logically wrong,” Gürata says.

Galata Bridge

With the Girl on the Bridge, the scenario is a bit different. Instead of the common representation seen in other films, the rapid montage of the last sequence makes the bridge unrecognizable at first. As Gürata told The Guide Istanbul: “It could be any other bridge in the world. That’s an interesting move – taking such an iconic structure, making it unrecognizable. It’s brave and risky, but I like it.” 

The last position of the camera reveals that it is indeed Galata Bridge, and captures the striking landscape of Istanbul. Thus The Girl on the Bridge turns full circle, opening the story on the bridge over the Seine, and ending on a bridge over the Golden Horn. 

Istanbul, as the final destination of that glamorous love-story, may seem a little melancholy and timeworn for its inhabitants. But it is the artist’s prerogative to choose how to illustrate their idea, and Leconte has undoubtedly done it in an intriguing and beautiful way, suiting the dark visual style of the film.

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