Three Monkeys (Uc Maymun) by Jonathan Romney in London
16 May 2008 07:15
Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Turkey-France-Italy. 2008. 109 mins.
An ostensibly routine noir-style psychological thriller vaults into the realms of high art in competition contender Three Monkeys. Cannes has been kind to Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan in the past, with Uzak and Climates establishing his auteur credentials here in 2003 and 2006. His new film represents a bold departure from his past style: it's best described as introspective melodrama, yet both visually and tonally, it's still quintessential Ceylan.
For the first time, Ceylan really involves himself in narrative complexity, spinning a subtly-twisty yarn with echoes of such crime writers as Simenon and James M. Cain. Three Monkeys will consolidate Ceylan's reputation among art-house cognoscenti, but should win him new fans too. Its genre bent should give it a niche crossover appeal for export, in ways that Uzak and Climates never quite reached.
The film's theme, as with so much prime noir, is guilt, and the people who either accept it or try to slough it off: the title allusion is to the proverbial apes of 'see/hear/speak no evil' fame. The story starts in moody, night-soaked fashion, with a middle-aged man dozing at the wheel of his car before causing a hit-and-run accident (it's typical of the film's elliptical approach that the victim remains unknown).
The perpetrator is Servet (Kesal), a politician who fears that the accident will affect his election chances. He therefore persuades his driver Eyüp (Bingöl, best known in Turkey as a folk singer) to take the rap, in exchange for a payoff that will keep his family financially secure. Eyüp goes to prison, while his teenage son Ismael (Sungar) strays into undefined bad company - presumably the reason for him coming home bloodied one night.
Hoping to help out her son, Eyüp's wife Hacer (Aslan) approaches Servet for a handout, and ends up getting more involved with him than she, or we, expected.
Some standard pulp-thriller tropes are tantalisingly spun out for the first hour, but the slyness of the narrative approach only becomes fully apparent after that. It's only then, for example, that Eyüp, newly released, fully enters the action as a player, the emphasis of the drama shifting disorientingly to him. And it's only after an hour that we discover that the couple have had another son, long dead, who haunts the story in a couple of enigmatic images, one a dream with vaguely Tarkovskian overtones.
Throughout, Ceylan and his co-writers - his wife Ebru Ceylan and actor Kesal - systematically withhold key information, keeping us as much out of the loop as his characters often are. Much of the film, crucially, revolves round the suspicions and anxieties of both father and son. Like previous Ceylan films, this one looks long and hard into the mysteries and self-destructive contradictions of the human heart, but the film's sombre, arguably pessimistic bent also finds room for Ceylan's blackly sardonic humour, embodied here by a running gag about an unintentionally eloquent cellphone ringtone.
Using HD video in steely, washed-out hues, Ceylan and DoP Tiryaki provide the beautifully composed cityscapes that have become the director's trademark, as well as facial studies that speak more eloquently about characters' conflicting emotions than the common run of close-ups. A gorgeous, digitally-manipulated final shot gives the film a troubling open ending that can only stir debate and send intrigued viewers back for a second viewing.
The only cavil is that the pacing gets a little slack in the final stretches, and - while it's the nature of a Ceylan film to be slow-burning - the smallest amount of trimming could well turn an exceptional film into a near-perfect one.