Two films showed up in competition at Cannes in 2008 which appeared to suggest new artistic directions being taken by two sets of the festival’s recent favourite filmmakers. The first was Le silence de Lorna (2008) by the frères Dardenne, which narratively seemed to take their usual naturalistic realist aesthetic and graft in onto an increasingly fairytale-like story. The second was Three Monkeys, the latest film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose beautifully shot if languidly paced previous two films Uzak (2002) and İklimler (2006) had received significant critical acclaim and effectively established his position at the forefront of European cinema, alongside the brothers from Belgium.
Ceylan’s output may well be the very quintessence of many peoples’ idea of what constitutes an arthouse film: broadly existential themes, use of naturalistic acting, and a hugely idiosyncratic visual style. Where the work of the Dardennes frequently invites comparisons with that of Robert Bresson, Ceylan’s oeuvre unavoidably brings to mind references to the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Abbas Kiarostami: schools of filmmaking which glide at meditative paces, allowing the viewer to concentrate on how surrounding environments shape individuals’ assessments of their own identity. In short, his films are more than a little slower than Michael Bay’s.
Both Ceylan’s particular thematic concerns and filmmaking aesthetic can be considered to be present and correct in his new film: long unbroken takes, careful attention paid to faces and expressions, the breakdown of relationships and bonds of trust, the director’s painterly eye for capturing both urban geography and the force and beauty of the native Turkish weather. The difference though is in the type of story being told. Narratively, Uzak and İklimler, both focusing on slow disintegrations of familial relationships, could hardly be described as being stuffed with drama: Three Monkeys announces itself as different from the very off, beginning as it does with a most tragic event, a fatal car accident. Servet, a wealthy businessman running for office in upcoming elections, has run down and killed a pedestrian.
Sensing a premature end to his political ambitions, he rings up Eyüp, his usual driver, with a deal: take the blame for the accident and serve the brief prison time in exchange for a large cash sum for him and his poor family. Eyüp, wanting to do the best for his wife Hacer and son İsmail, agrees and duly enters into a short prison sentence. All is far from well back at home, however: İsmail has failed to get into college and appears to have fallen in with a bad crowd, much to the consternation of his mother who, desperate and lonely becomes ever closer to their rich, charismatic benefactor Servet.
Already a somewhat fractured family unit at the start of proceedings, the film slowly toys with the moral implications of Eyüp’s acceptance of Servet’s shady deal. The film’s title is an allusion to the proverbial three monkeys who see, hear and speak no evil respectively, and though it is never entirely a satisfactory allegory for the three family members here, the point is still a valid one: that they are all in some way in denial about what has been happening, unable either to forgive or even to accept the realities of their situation. On paper, this all sounds a little preachy and in the hands of a lesser filmmaker could have easily descended into moral soapboxing, but Ceylan keeps things ambiguously opaque enough not to suggest over-indulgence.
My enjoyment of the film was somewhat soured by my having read other reviews which explicitly made reference to the highly unusual and entirely unexpected supernatural elements which begin to filter into the story: needless to say I shall not do the same, but would comment that they were most intriguing to me; I am not entirely decided of what their presence was for, but certainly feel they add something – hinting at some hidden grief at loss which may explain other matters on further watches perhaps? As with Ceylan’s previous work, the ending seems to reinforce the director’s strongly pessimistic view of human nature, but where Uzak and İklimler were sombre reflections rooted in melancholy, Three Monkeys feels like something entirely new from him, a straight-faced parable of the dangers of moral corruption which weighs uneasily on the mind.