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).