Three Monkeys (Üç maymun), Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Now Playing
A fat man with bulging eyes—in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s universe of visual metaphors, clearly a corrupt soul—drives down a deserted highway lined tightly with arrow-straight pines. As his headlights diminish in the distance, he turns a corner and vanishes into blackness. The screen, for a moment, becomes the void.
That’s only the first sixty seconds, and already we know no good can come from his journey. Turns out the fat man kills someone in a hit and run. He bribes his usual driver to take the fall; if the driver will cop and spend a year in jail, the fat man will set him up for life. The driver accepts the deal, accepts the guilt of another, and his world falls apart. His wife, his son, and an acquaintance will, all in sequence, assume another’s guilt and pay terrible dues. No one says a word to anyone else. Each moves through a universe of denial, tragically convinced of the rightness of their methods, or the over-arching honesty of their emotions.
Ceylan’s characters take longer to speak, and say less, than any other director’s. Their silence speaks volumes about the uselessness of language as a vehicle for expressing emotion or establishing connection, about the infinity between thought and expression, about the interior tennis match that goes on in any spouse’s or parent’s or child’s head when he/she looks at his/her husband/wife/father/mother/son/daughter, imagines the likely dialogue, recognizes the impossibility of altering the dynamic, and decides to say nothing.
This silence comprises only part of what makes Ceylan seem like the only director consciously building on the Tarkovsky legacy. Ceylan is no post-Godardian; he’s not interested in irony or breaking out of the narrative. Ceylan trusts the meaning of story, as did Tarkovsky. But except for The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s narrative action exists more to present his themes than seduce with story. Ceylan generates unbearable tension between his minimal dialogue and veiled plotting. No event in Three Monkeys arrives explained. The more significant events —a bloody beating, a murder by knifing, a passionate affair, a year in prison—take place off-screen. Ceylan, as in his earlier films, follows a linear timeline but seldom explains or even references the off-screen events. They’re subsumed into the characters’ lives, and the characters’ mood or face or posture reflects the dues they’ve paid. These dues bring great pain—usually suffered in silence —but little wisdom.
Godard was the great brainiac of cinema, Tarkovsky the great mystic. Ceylan does not revel in the front brain—he’s sincere and un-self-conscious. And his mysticism is that of the peasant, not the urban intellectual. Ceylan vests, like Tarkovsky, in the peasant’s realm: the tragedy of the human face and the terror/exhilaration of Mother Earth. Ceylan and Andrei Zvyagintsev, director of The Return (Vozvrashcheniye, 2003), share a slightly altered Tarkovsky gene. Both embrace landscape like the maestro, that is, as an awe-struck, besotted lover who finds poetry and genetic identity in weather, dirt, and sky. Unlike Tarkovsky or Zvyagintsev, however, Ceylan adores the city as much as the peasant’s merciless earth. His depiction of Istanbul in Distant (Uzak, 2002) features the hyper-attenuated colors of a dreamscape and the hard realist worship of Gary Winogrand. Ceylan’s first career, as the foremost still photographer in Turkey, honed his ability to discern and capture the unfathomable effects of a city or landscape on its inhabitants, and his penchant for grand, wide-screen, Cecil B. DeMille compositions, even if all the frame holds is half a character’s face or a wind-swept river view. Ceylan always finds a captivating cityscape, landscape, or weatherscape to serve as metaphor-context for his action. Because Three Monkeys is shot in wide-screen hi-def video, the human beings seem more merged with their contexts than ever. This is especially true in the cramped two-bedroom apartment of the father, mother, and son. Ceylan crams his wide-angle lens into every corner, and the resulting apartment-scape echoes the scale of the emotions played out there; those 500 square feet loom like Atlanta in Gone with the Wind.
Ceylan’s presentation of the human dilemma—which often revolves around communication and its absence, especially absent between the quote mind and the quote self—offers but does not wallow in monon0aware, the Japanese concept of ‘the bittersweet reality of life.’ Ceylan’s fatalism occupies a ground between a Middle Eastern watching the wheel turn as custom tries to dominate human nature and a Russian rueful acceptance of the blind alleys our stupidity leads us into. Does that make him quintessentially Turkish—caught between custom and secular philosophy? Three Monkeys in particular could be told as a tale around a fireplace in either culture. By focusing on the smallest inner-family dynamics, by never directly naming or addressing his profound themes, Ceylan has created archetypes.
Ceylan’s earlier films were more oblique, even more sparing in dialogue, the action existing only to illuminate the human heart. That the action here proves so bleak—and the hearts so buoyant and thus tragically deluded—has led Three Monkeys to be called a noir. If an American had made it, maybe it would be. The darkness of the events—murder, infidelity, revenge, Oedipal rage, physical abuse—are noir-like, rooted in class. If the driver could afford to tell his boss to eat his own sin, none of this would ever happen. If the final and most hopeless sin-eater had any options at all, he would never accept the final Devil’s bargain. Ceylan suggests an endless, corkscrewing cornucopia of unacknowledged evil, each act foisted off on a social lesser as a parent blames his/her own problems on the kids. In his interviews, Ceylan claims this is a film about refusing responsibility, about the destruction inherent in not hearing, seeing, or speaking evil. Those claims come off as disingenuous, or else perhaps the director thought he needed to link such a dire portrait of human nature to some putatively solvable human trait. If only.
Noirs do lie heavy on Ceylan’s mind, however. Foremost, at least as represented, the visuals, is Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund, 1977). Ceylan’s toxic family lives in an overhanging apartment building, whose bizarre dimensions and proximity to both railroad tracks and harbor consistently evoke the building housing poor Bruno Ganz, who’s about to be set upon by a rich, heedless American. The American Friend is based on the novel Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith, perhaps the author of folks ruthlessly using others for their own ends. And for all the inevitability of Greek tragedy that infuses Three Monkeys, the fully knowing exploitation, the willful wrecking of another’s life, and the soul-rotting, denied guilt that accrues, seem mighty Highsmithian.
The visuals raise—but in a much less intrusive way than in, say, The Conformist (Il conformista, 1970)—the Bertolucci Problem. To wit: does all this relentless, heart-stopping visual beauty serve the story or overwhelm it? That question most frequently arises regarding close-ups of the lead actress. Ceylan states that she is a stage actress and gave too much, overacted for the camera. He claims to have shot her in secret, telling her certain scenes were only rehearsals. Again, anyone who’s been on a set might find that hard to believe (though maybe it’s easier to get away with shooting in digital than film). She does give so much that in certain close-ups, she seems disconnected from the action. She becomes an intense woman, being intense without a context, and connection to the narrative falters. Similarly, Ceylan shoots such exquisite portraits that that’s what they become. And there’s a moment of surprise when the portraits speak. His painterly eye, which is unmatched in current cinema for color, tone, framing, or movement, makes his films such rich, multi-layered experiences. And because every shot, or almost every, becomes a crucial metaphor for the valence of the action, those shots that remain only shots seem oddly deflating.
But it’s only those reaching for—and achieving —profundity who warrant forgiveness when they occasionally slip back into the quotidian. Ceylan has the courage to perceive more, and capture what he perceives with greater soul and more understanding of cinema, than any other living director.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.