For a filmmaker of such particular aesthetic sensibilities, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been compared to a surprising range of directors over the years. His first two films, The Small Town (1997) and Clouds of May (1999), reminded some of Abbas Kiarostami with their interlocked, naturalistic narratives. His breakout film Distant (2003), an evocatively deadpan look at terse, lovelorn characters, provoked comparisons to Tsai Ming-liang, with an occasional nod to Jim Jarmusch. But those who had Ceylan pegged as a Middle-Eastern practitioner of fashionably static 21st century ennui may well have been puzzled by Climates (2006), a surprisingly direct, occasionally even violent look at the dissolution of a marriage, with the lead roles played with discomfiting intimacy by the filmmaker and his wife Ebru. True, Ceylan’s trademark austerity was still there, but whereas the previous films had resisted the impulse to dramatize (Ceylan actually cut a murder subplot—that’s right, a murder subplot—from Distant), Climates contained a certain earnestness and a willingness to confront its characters’ neuroses head-on. Suddenly, the filmmaker was being compared to Ingmar Bergman.
And now comes Three Monkeys, a film that opens with a nighttime scene of a man falling asleep behind the wheel of his car, running over a pedestrian, then hiding, breathless, as another couple discovers the body. All of it immediately followed by a loud crack of thunder and a heavy rainfall. As Dorothy might say, I don’t think we’re in Distant anymore.
That car accident sets off a series of other potentially melodramatic events. The man behind the wheel, Servet (Ercan Kesal), it turns out, is a wealthy local politician currently running for office. He’s already got some legal problems, so he enlists his driver Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) to take the fall and go to prison in his stead, in exchange for a large sum of money to be doled out in installments to his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and his son Ismail (Rifat Sungar). Once Eyup is gone, mother and son decide to take an advance on the money to buy a new car—but when Hacer goes to see Servet to arrange for the payment, sparks fly between the two. Ismail soon becomes aware of their adultery, however, resulting in a rift between mother and son. Things go downhill from there.
With its political overtones, its class delineations, and its family psychodrama, Three Monkeys is Ceylan’s riskiest film to date: risky because it doesn’t hide behind understated character dynamics. It’s a film that’s full of outsize emotions—love, hate, and fear—that were kept under tight control in Ceylan’s previous films. Sam Fuller would be proud. And yet, it would be silly to dismiss the film as a complete departure. For even as it tells a conventionally dramatic tale, it continues to display Ceylan’s remarkable tonal discipline and his increasingly sophisticated use of the frame.
Here’s a comparison. Three Monkeys actually recalls the work of another filmmaker, one to whom Ceylan had previously been compared only in the most glancing way. When he won his Cannes Grand Jury Prize for Distant, the director had noted in his acceptance speech the previous time a Turkish film had won an award on the Croisette, when Yilmaz Guney won the Palme d’Or for Yol in 1982. At the time, Guney was a fugitive from justice who had produced his film while in prison and edited it while on the run from Interpol. He was also Turkey’s most successful filmmaker, whose work dominated film culture throughout the 70s, both thanks to his neorealistic and poetic dramas and also to his acting career as the country’s reigning icon of working class anger. (You can read more about him here.) Both strands of Guney’s persona—the sensitive, socially committed artist and the shit-kicking roughneck—came together in 1971’s Baba (The Father), a very popular drama about an impoverished family man, played by Guney, who takes the fall when his landlord’s son kills someone in a drunken brawl. Guney’s character agrees to go to jail in exchange for the landlord taking care of his wife and kids. Needless to say, things don’t go well. The similarities with Three Monkeys end there, however: What starts off as a sensitive social drama in The Father eventually turns into a full-on gangster revenge picture, with Guney glowering his way through its second half.
Guney’s film offers a pretty telling example of the heightened narrative possibilities inherent in the premise of Three Monkeys. Ceylan’s approach, of course, is decidedly more austere. His grand theme, as laid out in all his feature films dating back to The Small Town, is alienation—alienation from one another, from family, from nature, from one’s roots—and Three Monkeys offers us his most effective visual exploration of this theme to date. Whereas his previous films often gave us carefully composed long shots that transformed his spaces, Ceylan fragments his approach this time, relying more than ever on close-ups and medium shots. It’s an important choice, because the film’s narrative plays out largely as a series of binary interactions. For most of Three Monkeys, there isn’t a single scene that involves more than two characters: When the son visits the father in prison, the mother is invariably absent. When the mother visits the boss at his office, the son is absent. When the father is released from prison, it’s the son who picks him up, with the mother nowhere to be found. Three major characters come together only during two important moments in the film: When the son discovers the mother’s adultery by spying through a peephole, and when the family finally sits together, briefly, after the son makes a startling confession near the end. (This is also the only point at which we see the three of them together in the same frame.)
It would be a gimmicky, or at least theatrical, approach in the hands of a lesser director, but Ceylan (and, let’s face it, he’s also working with a terrific cast) somehow makes it work. Perhaps that’s because he’s also created an atmosphere of such moral oppression around these characters that the alienation feels organic, simply a fact of the world they inhabit. The steely grays and pitch-black shadows of the film’s cinematography, the sharpened, dagger-like sound effects of the film’s often wordless soundtrack, those monstrously portentous skies…it all coalesces into an atmosphere of looming, mounting tragedy. Maybe the correct comparison this time should be to Aeschylus.
Three Monkeys is opening in New York City on May 1. Click here for playdates. Climates is playing for free in the US at The Auteurs through May 3. Ceylan's short film Cocoon is now showing at New York Magazine.