Nuri Bilge Ceylan stands as our grandmaster of ridiculously precise mise-en-scene and the potentially violent sex scene; both trademarks are in evidence in Three Monkeys, typically must-see viewing for anyone who cares about the art of framing. The opening pre-credits dilemma—a man in the darkness accidentally running over someone—is laid out in exactly four shots, with the actual accident elided. All this takes place in freakish lime-green shades, like much of the film; Ceylan has embraced HD’s color-tweaking head-on, like the good ex-photographer he is. Ceylan’s most rigorously calibrated effect—using out-of-focus negative space to draw attention to what’s not in the foreground and what will enter the space in a moment—is also here. The man is an instantly recognizable stylist.
But it’s hard to reconcile this Ceylan with the deadpan stylist who drew my attention with 2002’s Distant. At a moment when I was about to go into slight sugar-shock from all the Jarmusch/Kaurismäki-ish deadpan arthouse movies where taciturn people understatedly melted into humanist reconciliation, Ceylan took the style and warped it with a tale of two equally unlikable men who came together and stubbornly refused to reconcile. The results were still funny, but deeply uncomfortable, never more so than when Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) took to Istanbul’s bus system to sit with his legs ever-so-slightly splayed in the hopes of slowly expanding their stance to touch some woman, which apparently counted as flirting in his world. Climates was a little more portentous, but it still had the decade’s best sex scene. Three Monkeys, from its title on down, announces itself as a Tragedy.
There are only so many ways to show the faces of lingering grief, which is basically the entire last third of the film. The strong love triangle has corrupt politician Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) letting his chaffeur Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) take the rap for his roadkill accident while sleeping with said chaffeur’s wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan). There are hints of wit here: Hacer’s ringtone is an obscenely overwrought Turkish ballad (“I hope your heart melts with despair”) that goes off at strategic moments. For the most part, though, we’re in a humor-free zone, the better to emphasize The Tragedy Of It All. But it’s one thing to have a dead child; it’s another thing to have the damn kid show up at strategic hallucinatory periods in creepy slo-mo; I began to wonder if Three Monkeys was about to make some kind of Kiyoshi Kurosawa-esque third-act detour into J-horror, with the kid deciding to off everyone to end the film. Such are the ignoble thoughts ignited when a basically solid if unoriginal scenario refuses to give itself breathing room; the first half is riveting for sheer technique alone, but eventually there’s nothing to watch but lots of grim faces. We await the return of the more mischievous Ceylan.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.