Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the current Big Three film giants of Europe in that he is a throwback to the days of visionary directors like Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Along with Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos and Hungary’s Bela Tarr, Ceylan has grown into a rarefied stratosphere, and his last film, 2006’s Climates, was a masterpiece.
His latest film, last year’s Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun) continues Ceylan’s progression as a superb visual stylist, as the film’s every shot is bathed in either natural light or sepia tones that make rundown Turkish neighborhoods seem majestic. Cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki shows he is one of the top cameramen in the business with this film, especially in scenes where overcast weather takes on Gotterdammerung-like tones. But, unfortunately, while this film is Ceylan’s greatest visual achievement, it represents a decisive step back in terms of screenwriting.
Essentially, the plot is lifted from standard soap operas around the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, William Shakespeare was the greatest soap opera writer of all time, the numero uno melodramatist. But, about a century and a half ago, guys like Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, and later Eugene O’Neill, basically stuck a dagger through the heart of melodrama, and relegated it to bad films and TV shows, B movies and soap operas. That’s not to say that, given the verbal dexterity of a William Shakespeare, that one cannot make melodrama into art (for even travesties like Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream have wonderful moments), just that the screenplay for Three Monkeys contains no Shakespearean moments.
Let me now get the rather thin plot summarized and out of the way. The film starts with a rich politician, Servet (Ercan Kesal), who is in a re-election fight, who accidentally runs over a man while driving through the countryside at night. He calls up his longtime personal driver, Eyüp (Yavoz Bingol), who agrees to take the fall for his boss, and go to prison for nine months, to help him win re-election, and also to get a lump sum payment that his family desperately needs. Left behind are his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan), who soon develops into a stereotypically needy and faithless wife, who commences a Fatal Atttraction-like affair with Servet, the man who sent her husband away, and his son Ismail (Ritaf Sungar), the Turkish equivalent of a slacker youth. Hacer ostensibly begins her affair with Servet after asking him for an advance on the sum to be paid to her husband upon release; this after Servet has lost his election, thus making Eyüp’s imprisonment folly. The politician offers her a ride home; their mutual attraction begins with flirtations and then an affair (not seen, only offscreen).
As Eyüp gets paroled, Hacer still rages after Servet, to the point of stalking him, while the indolent Ismail grows more and more resentful of his mother, and watches his father slowly come to realize that something is now amiss in the clan. One of the few points that could have lifted the film out of soap opera territory and into Ingmar Bergman realms (for these characters are requisite Bergmanian archetypes) is the revelation of a fourth family member, Ismail’s brother (Gürkan Aydin), who died, likely of drowning (for the child is perpetually wet), as a tot. We see images of the child (oddly like the Kubrickian Starchild of 2001: A Space Odyssey) haunt Ismail and Eyüp, while Hacer, the mother, oddly, seems to never think of her baby. The why could have led to a real sense of drama: did she suffer from postpartum depression and drown the boy? Was it an accident? But this thread is raised, tantalizingly, only to be discarded.
As a symbol, the dead child works, but in the overall arc of the film, it seems a cheap ploy (the dead child’s grip on his sleeping father is the only moment of physical warmth in the film, and it’s not real) to excuse bad characterizations of the three family members; as if the viewer needs to fill in the blanks. This would be fine if the characters revealed were empathy worthy. They are not, so their memories of the dead boy come off as self-pitying wallow rather than a real reason to explain their actions. In short, as limited a critical tool as T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative has been over the decades, this is an instance where its dictum rings true, and Three Monkeys’ failure to pass that bar is an obvious flaw. As such, it is emblematic of the pros and cons of this film – such great potential, and only good, solid realization, at best. It’s the sort of film that, the more you think of it, despite its visual razzle-dazzle, the less it sticks with you.
The film ends with Eyüp finding out of his wife’s affair when (soap opera alert!) he picks up Hacer’s cell phone only to hear his boss’s voice on the other end; he then hangs up when he asks who it is (ugh!). Hacer threatens but not follow through on suicide, then Ismail kills Servet, only to have the now wealthier Eyüp try to get him off by bribing an even poorer man he knew, Bayram (Cafer Köse), into going to jail for his son, just as he went to jail for Servet. (Apparently Turkey has no death penalty, and a quite wonderful penal system for the ease with which others are willing to be imprisoned for money is odd.) The overall mechanics of the last ten minutes are so predictable, in a third rate Dynasty sort of way, that even the visually and existentially wonderful last few moments of the film, with Eyüp on his balcony looking out at the Sea of Marmara as a thunderstorm rolls in, cannot save it.
The cinematography, by Gökhan Tiryaki, is stellar, as mentioned, and much of the film reveals itself not in the trite screenplay but in the use of camera angles that seem to keep the characters at arm’s length. They therefore become more like specimens under a scientific test than characters humans can empathize with as one of our own. Also, many scenes use characters viewing things from behind walls, bushes, doors, or looking into small areas, as if frames. While this evokes a filmmaker like Yasujiro Ozu, it also evokes thoughts of eavesdropping soap opera characters, so has a net zero effect on the screenplay, as the technical excellence is undone by the dramatic predictability of such shots. This is why the film has no real depth.
This stark contrast with the prior Climates is quite shocking. In a sense, this is telegraphed by the rather odd title of the film. Yes, Three Monkeys does refer to the old saw of a trio of monkeys who see, speak, and hear no evil, as they cover their respective sensory organs that enable them to do so. But, the original Planet Of The Apes took this theme to the limit 40 years earlier. Three Monkeys’ take on it is rather flat.
First, there is little discerning which three of the four main characters the title refers to. Given that Ismail commits murder, Hacer is a psychotic adulteress, Servet is a slimy politician, and Eyüp an unsympathetic stooge, the title seems tacked on, as if an appendix to aid viewers cohere something from this screenplay’s mess. The fault lies squarely on the filmmaker, his wife Ebru Ceylan, and Ercan Kesal (serving double duty as the politician in the film and co-screenwriter). There are some good scenes, such as when Eyüp, upon release, wants to have sex with Hacer, but literally seems to smell her infidelity. He treats her rather brutishly, but considering her transgressions, she gets off lightly. Another great scene is when the mad Hacer throws herself at Servet, only to have him cruelly reject her. That we get no closeups, only a long shot, by the seashore, shows that Ceylan does not ‘waste’ closeups on emotionally obvious scenes, and makes the film seem more like a Frederic Edwin Church painting come alive, than a typical Hollywood shot film. He also makes wise use of ellipses, showing only the aftermaths of things — the son’s death, Hacer’s affair, Servet’s murder, Eyüp’s prison stay, etc.
That this hour and 45-minute long film won Ceylan the Best Director award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival is no surprise. It’s the sort of award that goes toward visual theatrics, and this film is an H-bomb. But, it’s telling that it was not a winner for best film. The Region 2 DVD, put out by Imaj, is a good package. Disk one has the film, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but no commentary. It would have been interesting to hear Ceylan riff on the pros and cons of this film. Even a film scholar’s thoughts would be welcome. The subtitles are in white, but given the sepia tone of much of the film this poses no problem in reading. The grammar and spelling errors, however, are another story, and point to a poor job of translation by the folks at Imaj.
Disk two has the extras, including a behind the scenes featurette on the making of the film. This is okay, but lacking any commentary it consists mostly of retakes of assorted scenes. Then there is a featurette of the cast and crew at the Cannes Film Festival, a couple of other featurettes on Ceylan and a Ceylan expert on the film and its worldwide reception, the original theatrical trailer, and a nearly hour and a half long interview program with Ceylan being queried by another Turkish filmmaker whose name is hard to divine. Nonetheless, the discussion is illuminating, deep, and had me longing for such a program to hit American airwaves. Particularly illuminating was Ceylan’s claim that too often filmmakers and artists in politically repressive countries use censorship as an excuse for why their art is so bad and politicized, and lacking in creativity.
Some critics have tried to defend the soap operatic elements of the film on the fact that it is loosely based upon a real life event — the 1996 Susurluk case in Turkey, where innocents got punished instead of the actual criminals, who also were involved in murder and a pay for prison scheme. But, it does not matter to the viewer, especially the non-Turkish viewer.
First, the real life circumstances of the Susurluk case were quite different from this film’s setup; and second, even were they the same, it does not excuse all the melodrama and predictability that abounds in Three Monkeys. Melodrama, incidentally, was originally drama meant to be set to music, meaning that its writers realized that its simplistic narratives needed outside forces to help convey the totality of the scene. This is no slur, as the greatest melodramatist of all was William Shakespeare, and he used the music of his blank verse to help convey much of the import of his best plays. But, they pale next to the ethical and structural complexities of the great Modernist dramatists like those mentioned earlier in this essay, for, drama can stand on its own, sans music’s buoy.
All in all, Three Monkeys is a very schizophrenic film, with great (if only the loneliness and sacrifice themes had been accorded more weight) and bad (the predictability) in one, but it is also a film to see for its amazing visuals, and the very fact that it shows a great artist whose art fails the greatness test, for the keys to understanding greatness are often hermetic in purely great art. There is a seamlessness that lets no eyes inside to see the substructure or architecture of greatness. Merely excellent or near great art, however, has holes and cracks that let in a viewer/critic see how the damned edifice was constructed, thus allowing for replication. Here’s hoping that Ceylan himself gazes at the blueprint, and makes the proper corrections in his next film, for as it is, Three Monkeys is not only a regression from the heights of Climates, but it falls below the achievement of Distant as well.