Three Monkeys (Üç maymun)
- Tom Dawson
- 19 February 2009
Following on from Uzak (Distant), his melancholic portrait of troubled masculinity, and his intimate study of a relationship meltdown in 2006’s Climates, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan ambitiously branches out into film noir territory with this contemplative, elliptical yarn, which takes its title from the proverb about monkeys who ‘see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.’
The Istanbul milieu of Three Monkeys is more working-class than the settings from Ceylan’s previous two films. Here the driver father Eyup (Yavuz Bingol), his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan), and their teenage son Ismael (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) become embroiled in a web of deceit, guilt, and ultimately murder. The catalyst is Eyup agreeing to go to jail on behalf of his corrupt politician boss Servet (Ercan Kesal), who’s committed a hit-and-run driving offence. And it’s while Eyup is in prison and looking forward to his financial reward that Hacer begins an affair with Servet, which is discovered by an incensed Ismael.
The bulk of Three Monkeys unfolds over a sweltering, energy-sapping summer, and the key space is the claustrophobic family flat, which adjoins railway tracks and overlooks the sea: these symbols of escape are visually contrasted with the entrapment of the characters. Many of the important events in this darkly ironic story occur off-screen, however: we never see the original car crash, for example. instead we hear it and see its aftermath, and we never learn who assaulted Ismael. Ceylan also plays around with our expectations of who is the protagonist as the narrative focus shifts between family members, reinforcing the theme of humans passing on guilt. There’s even the spectral presence of a dead sibling haunting proceedings.
One of Ceylan’s great strengths is his ability to deploy different facets of mise-en-scene to illustrate the inner worlds of his troubled characters, and here his fine cast, who communicate their emotions more through their expressions and silences than through dialogue, assists him. Above all this a superbly crafted film: the impressively composed widescreen HD images of cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki are almost entirely drained of bright colours, while the meticulous sound design is also integral to the film’s ominous atmosphere.