Three Monkeys


Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys was one of my Top 10 of 2008. It is streaming for free at The Auteurs on Sunday, April 26, 2009.

This review originally appeared at Looking Closer Journal.

What little buzz I heard about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys coming out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was that it was as much of a letdown as a film that wins its director a festival award for best director can be. It’s all about expectations, I guess.

Coming off of two accomplished and highly lauded features (Distant [2002] and Climates [2006]) the Turkish writer and director faced that inevitable problem confronting any artist who is hot in the Internet age. Reputation spreads so quickly as viewers and critics try so hard to stay ahead of the curve that, much like emerging professional athletes, directors find their successes extrapolated, the hype surrounding them intensified, and the expectations about their subsequent work burdened with double digit inflation.

All of which is a shame, really, because I suspect the very things that might marginally disappoint the avant-garde minded viewers or critics are the things that could very well make Three Monkeys a better bet for the casual or new cinephile than his less accessible earlier works.

By that, I guess I mean first and foremost that Three Monkeys has a narrative arc that is a bit more clearly defined than Ceylan’s earlier two works, which were primarily character and relationship studies. Three Monkeys does delve into character issues, but it does so within the context of a more traditional (if still opaque by Hollywood standards) plot. The action is set in motion when Servet (Ercan Kesal), a politician on the eve of elections, hits a pedestrian with his car while driving in the darkness of early morning. (In a wonderfully subtle and revealing detail, we are never told for certain if the person hit was killed.) Servet agrees to pay his chauffer Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl) a lump sum on top of his regular salary if he will take responsibility and say he was driving the car. Eyüp agrees and begins serving a year in jail.

Once Eyüp is in prison, the focus shifts to his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) who must survive in his absence. Much as does Graham Greene’s classic The Tenth Man, this section of Three Monkeys examines the nebulous boundary that often exists between sacrifice and selfishness. Seldom is any sacrifice we make entirely personal, and there are often hidden (or not so hidden, just not immediately obvious) costs to them that are borne by the very people we claim that we are making them for.

Ismail wants his mother to get an advance on the payment from Servet in order to get a car, in part to help make some money while his father is in prison. Later, through an accidental circumstance, he begins to question whether or not there is a pre-existent relationship between his mother and Servet or whether she has had to bend to circumstances in order to survive. He also wonders whether he should tell his father what he knows (or suspects).

The basic narrative structure of the film, then, revolves around the accumulation of secrets and silences—the title refers to the proverbial monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil. Whether or not the viewer thinks that there is a thematic point behind the examination of damages caused by looking the other way will, I imagine, go a long way towards determining the extent to which she or he warms to the film. The resolution of the plot suggests a somewhat fatalistic or determined attitude towards human nature—that we fall into the same patterns of behavior and don’t learn much from mistakes, whether our own or that of others. On the other hand, the film lingers slightly after the climax, and the mise en scène of the dénouement hints that clouds can gather only so long before a storm breaks. This ending is thematically thought-provoking in that the contrast between impulse and considered action is a major theme in the film and in at least one key incident, a repressed or stifled impulse is later—possibly—enacted as a calculated decision. We are left to contemplate, then, whether or not the consequences of each character’s mistakes have been avoided or only just deferred.

And I guess in some ways, I tend to focus more on what the film is trying to communicate visually, through setting and reaction shots, than through its plot devices. To focus exclusively or even primarily on narrative elements in a Ceylan film is a bit like discussing the symbolism in the flower selection of a Van Gogh. There is a distinctive style to Ceylan’s films that is beguilingly simple yet deeply rich. The direction can be a bit of an adjustment to those calibrated to commercial narrative film (with its preponderance of medium length shots and conversational cross-cutting). Ceylan will often shoot contrary to expectations, keeping a long shot where we might expect a more intimate framing (such as in a key scene between Hacer and Servet) or keeping the camera on the character who is watching rather than on the action he or she is watching (such as when Eyüp sees his wife on a ledge contemplating suicide and we see the scene play out in and on his face rather than on the ledge).

As is often the case with films by directors who convey information visually as much as through dialogue, there is a lot of ambiguity in Three Monkeys. The aforementioned scene between Servet and Hacer ends with a shot from a different angle, from between some branches, and we are left to decide for ourselves if this is a point-of-view shot and someone is watching. Occasionally (such as when Servet and Hacer are driving in a car) we will hear the voice of a character who is not in the frame, but when the camera pans to him the actor is not speaking, and we are left to contemplate which parts of the dialogue were real and whether this device represents words considered but left unsaid.

Christian viewers sensitive to problematic content should be aware that, as with Climates, there is strong sexual content in the film (though the actual nudity is moderate by Hollywood standards), and it is disturbing in that Ceylan will depict sex as a form of aggression or anger in which the goal is the humiliation of the woman or an assertion of power or control over her. The (unconsummated) sexual encounter between Hacer and Eyüp is not as violent nor as sustained as the one in Climates, in part because Eyüp, unlike the male protagonist in Climates seems to be struggling against those misogynist parts of his psyche that make women an easy scapegoat for one’s own failings and an easier target for one’s own unreleased anger.

I’m probably the ideal sort of viewer for Three Monkeys in that I’m not yet so experimental in my film tastes as to sniff at its conventional narrative frame (for those viewers I recommend Denis’s Thirty-Five Rhums) nor so dependent on a work’s self-exposition to balk at its ambiguity (for those viewers there’s always Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). That said, I seriously wonder if the film will end up being the cinematic equivalent of a politician who changes his approach just enough to tick off his base without doing so enough to draw in new voters. I think those who like Ceylan’s films will be respectful towards Three Monkeys, and it might even cement his reputation amongst those who are familiar with his work but on the fence about their attitude towards him. I just don’t expect to see it on the shelves at Blockbuster or playing at any but the most niche-marketed theater houses any time soon.

My Grade: A-

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