Sunday, June 21, 2009

Three Monkeys

A family is dislocated when small failings become extravagant lies. The film opens as a wealthy businessman, Servet, running a campaign for the upcoming election, is driving in his car alone and sleepy, struggling to keep his eyes open. Seconds later he hits and kills a pedestrian in the middle of the road. Servet panics when another car with a couple inside approaches. He sneaks away. Eyüp, a man living in a slum at Yedikule neighborhood in İstanbul, with his wife and only son, is the driver of Servet. He wakes up in the middle of the night with his cell phone ringing. It's his boss, telling Eyüp to meet him immediately. Shivering in shock, Servet explains the current events to his driver. His excuse is if the fatal accident comes out in press it would terminate his political career, so he proposes Eyüp to take over the penalty and stay in prison for a brief period of time in exchange for a lump sum payment upon his release, whilst still paying his salary to his family so they can get by. Eyüp accepts the deal.

An unspecified time passes, summer arrives, and Eyüp's son İsmail fails to enter college again. His mother, Hacer, who works in the catering division of a factory, starts worrying about her son after unpleasant events, and tries to convince him to get a job. İsmail suggests driving children between home and school but of course they don't have any financial source for this kind of an enterprise. İsmail asks his mother to request an advance payment from Servet without consulting Eyüp. Hacer meets with Servet, in his office after the election (which he lost), and requests the money. After Hacer leaves the office and starts waiting for a bus at the stop Servet persuades Hacer to accept a lift from him back to her home.

More unspecified time passes, and İsmail intends to visit his father. Things take a poor turn when he finds his mother having an affair with Servet. İsmail stands passive. More time passes, and Eyüp has been released from prison. He senses things are "a little peculiar" inside his home. Hacer is in love with Servet and insists to maintain their affair. Servet disagrees. That night, Hacer and Eyüp are invited to the police station and informed that Servet has been murdered. Police officers interrogate the two and Eyüp finds out that Hacer was cheating on him. He denies knowing nothing about it. İsmail confesses that he murdered Servet. Eyüp calms down when he pays a visit to a mosque. Afterwards, Eyüp goes on to speak with a very poor man who works and sleeps inside a tea house in the neighborhood. Eyüp makes the same proposition to the poor man, Bayram, that Servet made to him: to claim the crime committed by his son. Bayram agrees. The last scene shows Eyüp at his home's balcony, staring at the Marmara Sea, and along with thunder it starts to rain.

Three Monkeys, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 109 mins, 15

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has turned his innovative talents to that old cinematic favourite, the crime thriller

Reviewed by Jonathan Romney

When is a thriller, strictly speaking, a thriller? There's a fascinating cinema tradition in which directors associated with art films will take a stab at crime material.

This lets them tackle the extremes of human experience without the taboos imposed by mainstream fiction; it can also let highbrow auteurs prove that they, too, can keep viewers on the edge of seats (as opposed to nodding off in them). The results have often been fascinating, if not always classifiable as thrillers. Luchino Visconti took on James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, in his 1943 film Ossessione: the result – unmistakably – worked as a genre thriller, but it was also a lot more, an acute psychological study and a founding text for Italian neo-realist cinema. But Almodovar doing Ruth Rendell in Live Flesh? Not remotely a thriller: the director is far more interested in making an Almodovar film.

Such distinctions are ultimately subjective, so I'll leave you to decide whether Three Monkeys, by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a thriller or an art film disguised as one. Either way, it offers an intriguing new angle on typical noir material, as well as a new perspective on Ceylan's style. This brilliant director made his international mark with the 2002 feature Uzak (Distant), about a disillusioned Istanbul photographer; his follow-up, Climates (2006), was a painfully intimate drama about a couple splitting up, all the more uncomfortable because the leads were played by Ceylan and his wife, Ebru Ceylan.

Three Monkeys retains the emotional concentration of Climates and the plasticity of time that Ceylan developed in Uzak. But this study of tensions between three family members and an outsider also tells a bracingly tawdry crime story, albeit in extremely pared-down fashion.

The film begins with a middle-aged man driving at night, then running away from the scene of a hit-and-run. He is Servet, a politician standing in a Turkish election; he doesn't want his crime to endanger his chances, he tells his driver Eyup (Yavuz Bingol), and offers him a large sum of money to take the rap. Eyup accepts the deal in order to provide for his wife and son, then disappears into prison – and disappears temporarily from the film, for while we expect this to be Eyup's story (especially since Bingol is a well-known singer in Turkey), he's off-screen for the best part of an hour.

Ceylan then leaves us to puzzle over what is happening in Eyup's absence. We learn that his teenage son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) is getting into bad company, but we don't know exactly what trouble he's getting into, any more than does his mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan). Early on, there's a long take of Servet carping on the phone about his thrashing in the polls: it is only after a while that Ceylan reveals that Hacer has been sitting opposite him, having to listen to all this. Given the churlishness of this unappealing bald pudgy man (played by one of the film's co-writers, Ercan Kesal), it comes as a surprise to learn, but only after some time, that Hacer has fallen for him.

Three Monkeys is a sombre slow-burner, but with a thread of black comedy running throughout: the ringtone on Hacer's mobile phone starts off as a running gag, before you realise how much it foreshadows the bleak denouement. The intrigue coalesces into a murder story with a last-minute twist – a very sobering and ambivalent twist, at that. You may leave the film uncertain about what exactly has happened – or about which of the four characters are the three monkeys of the title, with its allusion to seeing, hearing, speaking no evil. But Ceylan withholds the answers: he'd rather you came out of the cinema and debated it, maybe over a strong Turkish coffee.

The film displays Ceylan's trademark visual finesse: the close-ups linger on the characters' faces as their emotions shift, not always readably, while he applies his panoramic distortions not only to the cityscapes but also to the enclosure of the family flat. After using high-definition video for the fine-grained naturalism of Climates, Ceylan here puts it to very different use, shooting in colour but bleeding the image to metallic shades of grey. Decide for yourself whether Three Monkeys classifies as a genre thriller – but in terms of intelligence and cinematic invention, this tantalising film carries a thrill entirely its own.

Three Monkeys an Exemplary, Deadening Exercise in Malaise
By Nicolas Rapold

You can imagine frame grabs from Nuri Bilge Ceylan's art noir Three Monkeys popping up in a Bordwellian film-studies textbook (or blog post). Observe the jack-in-the-box close-up (against deep-background action) for a politician hiding after a hit-and-run; notice how his fall guy's family apartment is shot from unsettling heights and at angles slightly askew to the walls; soak up the digitally manipulated jaundiced palette, like watching an entire movie through the shades that eye doctors give out. The Turkish director's shifting story of guilt—the politico's flunky comes back from serving time and confronts his wife and son over infidelities—does not lack for carefully engineered technique, which is as stringently orchestrated as in past acclaimed films Distant and Climates. But Ceylan is essentially talking past his characters, whose thoughts are treated as secondary to DP Gökhan Tiryaki capturing their faces with the right hope-curdling hue. The heavy mood of indolence and rage, calibrated with ellipses in action, is stifling—everyone seems to move in a queasy haze. The climactic landscape shot—storms brewing over a harbor streaked with tankers and a distant man in silhouette—is suggestive of broader, communal malaise, yet confirms the film as an exemplary but deadening exercise.

When Self-Interest Clashes With Unruly Desire

At least since 2003, when his third feature, “Distant,” won two prizes in Cannes, the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been a star of the international art-film circuit. “Distant” and its successor, “Climates” (a Cannes selection in 2006), are distinguished by careful framing, minimal camera movement and a mood that combines deep ennui with erotic longing. Though the films occasionally glance at modern global and Turkish social realities, they have a studiously abstract, timeless quality, a style that seems intended to soothe gloomy late-born cinephiles with intimations of Antonioni.

The mood of “Distant” is pretty well summed up in the title, and while “Climates” begins in warm sunshine, it feels most at home in the wintry landscape of its final scenes. Mr. Ceylan’s latest movie, “Three Monkeys,” which earned him an award for directing at Cannes last year, is in some ways a departure. The long takes and exquisite compositions are still there, but this time Mr. Ceylan trains his cool, detached sensibility on a ripe and pulpy melodrama that might have originated in a James M. Cain novel. The emotional weather is unusually hot and sticky, and the themes of class antagonism and sexual cruelty are overt, even if the literal depictions of sex and violence remain oblique and understated.

The basic story is as tight and simple as a slipknot. Servet (Ercan Kesal), a politician in the midst of a re-election campaign, is involved in a hit-and-run accident on a dark country road. He persuades his driver, Eyup (Yavuz Bingol), to take the fall for him, which will involve serving a relatively short prison sentence in exchange for an unspecified but large sum of money. Eyup, who lives with his wife and teenage son in a small apartment with a mind-blowingly cinematic view of the Bosporus, furrows his brow, shrugs his shoulders and accepts the offer.

Complications, as the saying goes, ensue. In Eyup’s absence, his son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), who can’t seem to pass his university entrance exam, drifts from adolescent idleness toward something potentially more dangerous. Hacer (Hatice Aslan), the boy’s mother, motivated at least partly by anxiety about her son, seeks out Servet’s help and ends up having an affair with him. What follows, while not exactly predictable, fits squarely within the logic of classic film noir, where cold-eyed self-interest quickly becomes entangled with unruly desires and the primal imperatives of honor and obligation.

All of it unfolds in hushed tones underneath a livid green sky, almost as if the clouds had been bruised by the emotional brutality the characters inflict on one another. Mr. Ceylan, a photographer as well as a filmmaker, at times falls prey to the pathetic fallacy, letting rain and lightning and mocking bursts of sunshine do too much of the dramatic work. And at the end he proves so besotted by his own prodigious ability to produce cinema with a capital C that he keeps the film going even after the story is effectively over. Good pulp depends, above all, on a ruthless sense of economy, and “Three Monkeys” is just a bit too profligate, too fancy, to be entirely convincing.

Which is not to say that it isn’t interesting. Somber as Mr. Ceylan’s films are, each is leavened by a bit of deadpan, minimalist comedy: an errant hazelnut skittering across a wooden floor in “Climates”; a maudlin pop song used as a cellphone ringtone here. And what Mr. Ceylan does with his actors is close to uncanny. Their dialogue is almost entirely literal and pedestrian, in keeping with their resolute ordinariness, but their equally ordinary faces become masks of mysterious, almost sublime feeling.

This is especially true of Ms. Aslan, whose face, with its wide, downturned mouth and dark-rimmed eyes, would be at home in Noh theater or silent film. Without her charisma, the movie would feel much more like an arch formal exercise. But Mr. Bingol, brooding stoically behind a dark mustache and heavy brows, and Mr. Sungar, pouting and gaunt, also impart their share of poetry. Only Mr. Kesal, playing a man in dubious possession of a soul, is a creature of pure prose.

The title of “Three Monkeys,” which Mr. Ceylan attributes to Confucius, raises a bit of a mathematical puzzle, since there are, after all, four main characters. Which three are the monkeys? Who is the odd man out — or, as the case may be, the lone human being in the primate menagerie? Does Servet make monkeys out of the other three, a working-class family at the mercy of a rich and powerful man? Is Ismail the innocent young victim of a morally obtuse older generation? Is Eyup a decent guy undone by monkeyshines perpetrated by his boss, his wife and his son? Or is it the men who are beasts, menacing Hacer and driving her to the brink of madness? Her husband and her lover both threaten to kill her, her son slaps her face, and she can’t seem to escape any of them.

The film’s shifting, elusive point of view is evidence of Mr. Ceylan’s skill. But he keeps himself, and the audience, safely outside the cage, while the four hapless beings inside suffer and struggle, beyond the reach of our compassion, as if some coldhearted creator had made them for no purpose beyond his own amusement.

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