I saw another picture today, "Three Monkeys" from the Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose "Climates" remains one of the few masterworks I've seen in world cinema this new century. Ceylan's latest is visually extraordinary and often arresting, a simple tale of a blackmail arrangement that leads to adultery and horrific recriminations. I'm talking to Ceylan tomorrow, so more on this one later. With its exquisite sense of composition and color, to be sure, "Three Monkeys" proves that Ceylan is leading the vanguard when it comes to high-def digital video's expressive possibilities.
'Three Monkeys' at present is toast of Cannes by Michael Phillips
CANNES, France—The Cannes Film Festival is an international bazaar, and no single aspect of this cinematic kaleidoscope by the Mediterranean exemplifies its globalism better than the pavilions lining the beach behind the Palais. The Irish pavilion sits at one end, Portugal’s a few steps down. The Icelandic commission has its own releases and locations to promote, as does Brazil.
On Friday, under the sort of threatening skies the director himself favors on screen, I’m sitting in the Turkish Pavilion, drinking Turkish coffee with the Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. His fifth feature, the stunning “Three Monkeys,” is one of the widely acknowledged favorites in the opening days of the 61st Cannes.
The title chosen by Ceylan (pronounced JEY-lahn) refers to evils about which his characters choose not to hear, see or speak. Late one night, a politician falls asleep behind the wheel of his car on a country road. He strikes and kills a pedestrian and then coolly coerces one of his employers to take the rap for him and serve a nine-month prison sentence.
This arrangement initiates a string of deceptions, including a tryst between the politico (Ercan Kesal) and the wife, Hacer, (Hatice Aslan) of the fall guy (Yavuz Bingol). Their son (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) learns of the affair. When the son’s father comes home from prison, the turmoil so long buried in his family—another son has drowned years earlier—rises to the surface.
Growing up, Ceylan says, “my family life was really complicated. Fights, things like that. I lived for a long time, for instance, several families together. Very complicated, and many tragic and very painful memories.” Making films, he says, has its “consoling” side. It is a way of “trying to understand the dark side of my soul. I use all my memories; that’s my primary material. They make life more…standable? Tolerable, I think you say.”
Ceylan’s previous film, “Climates,” traced the dissolution of a relationship. Ceylan and his wife, Ebru, played the central couple, and Ceylan shot it on high-definition digital video. When “Climates” premiered two years ago at Cannes, the film’s astounding vibrancy struck many in attendance as the medium’s first masterwork shot in that format.
“Three Monkeys” clearly comes from the same director’s eye, but its palette—virtually denuded of color, except for splashes and blotches of dark red—is very different, placing the characters in what Ceylan calls “a specific, separate world of their own.”
“‘Climates’ was my first film in digital, so I was a bit afraid of trying certain things,” he says. “I was interested in protecting the values of the digital resolution and things like that. Which is nonsense. I don’t care about resolution anymore…I know now that after you shoot you can change your lighting completely, and in a very cheap studio, with the cinematographer, I modified colors and the lighting in the post-production. [When filming] I only want to concentrate on the actors and the story.”
There are moments in his latest picture where you sense Ceylan’s inability to let go of a particularly rich image, in which the characters, placed just so in an exquisitely realized frame, are dwarfed or suffocated by storm clouds, or an interior darkness. The director acknowledges he shot several different endings toying with different fates of the major characters.
Narrative lurches notwithstanding, “Three Monkeys” offers the kind of artistry rare in contemporary cinema. Little details linger in the mind, such as a knife on a cutting board, tipping slightly in the breeze. Ceylan gets wonderful suspense out of everyday things, such as a telltale cell phone ring-tone that wails to the tune of a vengeful Turkish pop ballad.
Most indelibly, the film’s brief but brilliant depictions of the dead son grip the audience like nothing else so far in this year’s Cannes festival.
Ceylan’s web site showcases his photography along with his filmmaking. Despite courting far-flung comparisons to director Michelangelo Antonioni, “Three Monkeys” suggests that a more apt comparison regarding Ceylan’s compositional leanings involves another photographer turned director, Stanley Kubrick. Ceylan, says actress Hatice Aslan, a fierce marvel as Hacer, “is like his photos; he’s very calm.” But there is a great deal roiling underneath the surface.
This quality distinguishes the texture of Anton Chekhov, Ceylan’s favorite writer. For his next project he may adapt Chekhov’s “My Wife” to a Turkish setting and, if so, the film will star his wife, Ebru.
That’s a maybe, mind. “I’m not the kind of director who has lots of projects waiting,” Ceylan says, with a laugh. “Making a film changes you, and after struggling with a film, I just…wait. I go through hating cinema for some time. And then, under the load of the images and ideas, I slowly begin to work.”
“Three Monkeys” will receive limited U.S. distribution sometime in 2008 or 2009.