The new Turkish rom-com “Private Lesson” was filmed and set in Istanbul. But with its fashionable college kids on the make, sexy consenting adults flirting and showing a little skin, tech touches and the like, it could be set in Milan, Mumbai, Madrid, Mexico City or Miami.
Western culture and Hollywood mores have spread far and wide. And one of the reasons we take these trips Around the World with Netflix is to see how much alike world cinema, if not the world itself, reflects that. Watching these films just builds on my thesis that Netflix is Hollywoodizing global filmmaking faster than any big studio franchise.
With Netflix approving the projects and signing the checks in Spain, Uruguay, Italy, Poland, France or Indonesia, we’re seeing local versions and local customs imprinted on time-tested Hollywood formulae.
“Private Lesson” — the title has a Hollywood raciness because of what that implies in most every Western film that’s used it — is about an Istanbul influencer and makeover artist, a gorgeous young woman who teaches girls and young women in a secular corner of the Islamic world how to get what they want.
So there’s a little “What a Girl Wants” about it, with stakes that every now and then tip us off to Middle Eastern morals and dire or at least unpleasant Islamic consequences.
When “I want to be noticed” is a coed’s fondest wish, the midriff baring hotties at World University consult with Azra (Bensu Soral), who isn’t really enrolled there any more, but is still young enough to pass for a super-stylish grad student mingling with her peers.
She teaches them how to attract a man’s attention, how to place herself within his field of view at the right parties or clubs. She will call this school dean or that other responsible adult in her clients’ lives, pretending to be a teacher or a parent, just to provide cover for where they’re going tonight, trips they might take or dance classes their conservative parents wouldn’t approve.
But it’s a secret. The last thing Azra wants is several popular girls blabbing about her services in the restroom and having the university chancellor’s niece overhear them.
Hande (Helin Kandemir) is a studious bore, cosplaying as Afife Jale as she tries to sign classmates up to her “Imo” club on activities day. I mean, who wouldn’t want to meet and talk about “Immortal Literarians?”
But Hande lusts after the popular hunk Utku (Rami Narin). She blackmails Azra into taking her on. First lesson? Enough with the “comfortable” clothes!
“You don’t need ‘comfortable. You can be ‘comfortable’ when you’re old!”
Let’s start with lingerie shopping. And if you didn’t realize Turkey produced romantic comedies before now, you certainly won’t see that coming.
Hande learns “Men and women aren’t equal. We’re in balance.” That sounds almost traditional.
Another lesson? “What was Cinderella’s biggest mistake? She picked a guy interested only in appearances.”
A lot of these “rules” seem to contradict themselves — be a lady, dress sexier, “learn to say no” but sure, I’ll call and make an excuse so that you can hit this or that party.
In the tradition of scores of such mentoring comedies, Azra is thrown off her game when a bare-chested, cocky and self-centered fashion photographer (Halit Özgür Sari) moves into her apartment building and rudely imposes on her life.Burak becomes more attractive when he helps out with Hande, who falls into the “tequila shots” trap on her first night clubbing.
Director Kivanç Baruönü, who did the sci-fi comedy “Arif V 216,” doesn’t so much strike a balance between Westernized values and Islamic Conservatism here as normalize the sorts of things one sees in scores of North and South American and European rom-coms — many of them released by Netflix — for a Turkish audience.
Likewise, he and screenwriters Murat Disli and Yasemin Erturan are putting a palatable “tolerant” and quasi-feminist face on Turkey with films like this. As I said at the outset, hit the dubbed translate button on your Netflix settings and this film could take place literally anywhere that The Gap, Forever 21, H & M or Urban Outfitters is spoken. There’s no hint of ancient Istanbul about it.
That makes “Private Lesson” too generic to recommend. It’s too tame, trite and formulaic (there’s even a hip hacker called in to save girls from a nude-photo date predator) for Western tastes.
But like other Turkish rom-coms Netflix has released and I have reviewed, it’s a promising start.
Rating: TV-MA, adult situations, profanity
Cast: Bensu Soral, Halit Özgür Sari, Rami Narin and Helin Kandemir
Credits: Directed by Kivanç Baruönü, scripted by Murat Disli and Yasemin Erturan. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30