Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Istanbul, the present day. Servet, a businessman and aspiring politician accidentally kills a man in a late night car accident. Fearing for his career, he asks his driver, Eyup to accept responsibility for the accident. Servet assures Eyup that he will provide for his wife, Hacer, and his son, Ismail during his imprisonment and will reward him upon release. Servet then begins an affair with Hacer, which Ismail discovers when he returns home early from visiting his father in prison. Servet then terminates the affair.
After nine months, Eyup is released from prison. He also suspects his wife’s infidelity when he answers Hacer’s mobile phone when Servet calls, asking Hacer to leave him alone. Servet also meets her to reiterate that their affair is over. Eyup then becomes more aggressive towards Hacer, physically assaulting her. The police visit to inform the family that Servet has been found dead, and that Hacer’s phone number was the last called by Servet. Ismail then reveals that he killed Servet. Eyup then asks Bayram, who works in a tearoom but aspires to own his own business, to accept responsibility for Servet’s death, promising a large payout upon his release.
The past decade has seen an impressive revival in Turkish cinema, partly because of the works of Zeki Demirkubuz, the German-born Fatih Akin, and perhaps most crucially Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose films alone have won several dozen awards at major international film festivals, including three successive Golden Palm nominations at Cannes. Film critics globally have similarly acclaimed ‘Three Monkeys’ and Ceylan also the Best Director award at Cannes this year. Ceylan’s previous films have been notable for their pared-down minimalism and the exploration of issues such as estrangement and detachment.
‘Three Monkeys’ is cut from similar cloth, although unusually for Ceylan, it is more easily definable in terms of genre that his previous films to date, showing greater ambition. One might classify ‘Three Monkeys’ as a more straight-forward thriller, in which the lie upon which the foundations of the film are based upon unleashes a range of strong emotions; guilt, infidelity, memory, revenge, that threaten to devastate an already precarious family unit. Ceylan reveals a trauma from the past with the recurring image of a drowned child, whom both Eyup and Ismail see in different scenes. Both father and son tend the grave of the drowned son/brother, which perhaps suggests an incident, which either or both could have avoided, and considering the non-communication between Eyup and Hacer before his imprisonment, it is clearly an incident that the family has not been able to put behind it. It is intriguing how much information Ceylan withholds from his audience. For instance, the director shows none of the main dramatic episodes; the car accident, Servet and Hacer’s affair, and Servet’s murder. It is not these episodes themselves that are important, but their consequences and the reactions of those affected.
There is a notable absence of politics in Ceylan’s films. His films involve individuals and their relationships, rather than any greater social or political context. However, there is one subtle scene in ‘Three Monkeys’, which might easily be missed which is perhaps the most overtly political he has filmed. It is hard to imagine that it was just coincidental or innocuously included. A television report refers to the 2007 Turkish elections, from which the conservative AK party formed a government, although it has subsequently been challenged both by organisations concerned about its apparent threat to the Turkish secular constitution. Although the scene does not reveal the director’s personal political sympathies, it reflects a growing interest in the volatile political situation in Turkey.
Typically for Ceylan, ‘Three Monkeys’ is visually breathtaking, augmented by the choice of digital video, which intensifies the brooding and oppressive atmosphere his protagonists find themselves in. His sound design of thunder, rainstorms and barking dogs add to this environment, as does the deliberate muting of his colour palette. By using long, static takes of faces, often sweat-soaked, in close up, Ceylan reveals his characters’ fear and guilt, and increases the sense of disorientation and disorder by shooting actors from unconventional angles, reinforcing that not all is right with this family unit, quickly falling apart at the seams, not just because of Eyup’s lie but evidently circumstances which preceded it. Few directors, and certainly even fewer now, use the physical word so effortlessly to reflect the interior torments of their protagonists. It is a talent than Antonioni and Tarkovsky possessed, and in many ways Ceylan is a natural successor of both.
Despite the success of ‘Three Monkeys’ at Cannes and subsequent film festivals, early reviews have pointed out that the various narrative strands are contrived and too neatly resolved; for instance the offer Eyup makes to the hapless Bayram to take responsibility for Servet’s death is a means of completing the narrative full circle. However, these small plot machinations should not distract audiences from appreciating the film’s more impressive accomplishments. ‘Three Monkeys’ confirms Ceylan as one of the most interesting and challenging contemporary filmmakers. Although he is mostly respected as a visual artist, which is not surprising given his roots as a photographer, there is an added narrative depth to ‘Three Monkeys, even if it does not totally succeed. It is an encouraging sign that Ceylan is pursuing a more ambitious direction and taking risks rather than merely settling for what he has already shown himself to be capable of.