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‘Three Monkeys’

An ill wind blows through the Bosphorus and into the lives—and lies—of the four key characters whose secrets and longings lead to murder in Three Monkeys, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s gorgeously austere 2008 melodrama that followed his similarly artful and acclaimed features Distant and Climates and preceded his existential whodunit Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. This malevolent, howling force gusts through the cramped flat on the edge of Istanbul shared by short-tempered Eyüp, his long-suffering wife Hacer and their sullen son Ismail, all of whom are tied to disreputable local politico Servet. As thunder booms, lightning flashes and storm clouds roil in the spectacularly beautiful, moody skies overhead, this doomed quartet—haunted both by their own hapless actions and the occasional appearances of a waterlogged ghost child who seems to have wandered in from a J-Horror nightmare—apes the titular trio of simians to no avail; they all inevitably see, hear and speak evil, and still the wind blows.

Ceylan works wonders here with pulpy tropes: an innocent dupe takes the fall for a bigwig’s nighttime crime, a femme fatale ensnares a married moneybags with a penchant for poetry, a bored young gun stuck in a nowheresville takes a beating and seeks revenge. Astute to classic genre conventions as well as contemporary art-house vogue, Ceylan elevates his penny-dreadful plot with “slow film” stylistics—static camera setups, lingering takes, minimal dialogue, meticulous sound design, the casting of mostly amateur actors—to brilliant effect (earning him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival, among other accolades). He is a dispassionate observer, alternately squeezing his characters into tight domestic spaces that mirror their limited options and abandoning them to the wild outdoors, where they are belittled by vast expanses and left to fend for themselves among the elements (the latter in a succession of stunning land- and seascapes, as if Caspar David Friedrich had relocated his fog-shrouded loners to the shores of Byzantium).


Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘The Monk by the Sea’

The film’s intriguingly elliptical narrative moves forward according to mysterious chronological patterns and unarticulated emotional states; minutes or months might pass between scenes, and interactions among the often non-communicative characters are fraught with anxiety, exchanges of words and looks veering suddenly from innocuous to inscrutable to dangerous.

In one particularly charged sequence (above), Hacer visits Servet at his office to ask for a favor, unbeknownst to her disapproving husband or son. Having just stated the obvious—“Things are just a bit stressful here”—the sweaty would-be Lothario, his masculinity undermined by his recent election loss, fixes his gaze across his desk on the beguiling yet bewildered borrower of forbidden funds (Hacer needs cash for second-hand car that Eyüp would never spring for). Suddenly a tinny pop-song ringtone is heard, emanating from the oversized purse that Hacer holds on her lap. The song’s undulating rhythm and ululating vocal melody sound completely unlike anything else heard in the film thus far, and the incongruity of the diva’s sensual voice and the woe-is-me directness of her lament—“I hope you love and aren’t loved back, I hope love hurts you like it hurts me…I hope despair is always at your door…I hope your heart is stolen away”—ironically comment on the stifled eroticism of the office encounter while also providing a rare moment of levity.

The oddly comic tone continues as Hacer rifles through her purse to find the ringing phone; she digs into her bag, looks up in coy amusement, fishes around again, and glances once more at Servet, this time in embarrassment. After what seems like an eternity, Hacer locates the phone and shuts it off; pop music ceases, leaving a pregnant pause during which we hear Servet’s amplified breathing and the rotating of the electric fan that he uses to cool down (the incessant ringing, pop-song beat and Hacer’s flustered expression have heated him up).


‘Three Monkeys’

Abashed, Hacer escapes Servet’s office with a modicum of dignity and walks across the street to a bus stop. Seconds later—in one of Ceylan’s odd concisions of time—Servet pulls up alongside the bus stop to give Hacer a ride home. As with the ringing cell phone, eons go by as they debate his offer/command, tension further heightened by the intrusive sounds of overlapping car horns honking at Servet, who is blocking traffic in his attempt to pick up Hacer. The scene goes on longer than necessary in terms of mere plot mechanics, and Ceylan clearly relishes the stretching out of quotidian details as a means of further trapping his characters in their fate.

Of course Hacer finally relents and gets in the car (which previously has done terrible damage, but that’s another story). If only she’d answered that damn phone…but neither her lover, husband, son nor director would have allowed it.

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