Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys, 2008) was the fifth of the eight features that have so far been directed by Cannes favourite Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a leading Turkish filmmaker who has earned international respect for films that pensively examine life in his native Anatolia. Although pungently rooted in the day-to-day experiences of contemporary Turks, his thoughtful, visually compelling works are frequently praised for their universality. “I like to explore the soul of the characters,” he has observed,1 an aesthetic practice that travels well.

Ceylan, who turned 60 this year, became a filmmaker relatively late in life. Born in Istanbul in 1959, he studied engineering before developing an interest in photography. Only after working as a professional photographer did he decide to study filmmaking, enrolling at the state-run Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. His first film, Koza (Cocoon, 1995), a 20-minute study of an old couple played by his own parents, was accepted at Cannes, and a trilogy of features about provincial life in Turkey – Kasaba (The Small Town, 1997); Mayis Sikintisi (Clouds of May, 1999); and Uzuk (Distant, 2002) – followed. For Distant, a film about a sophisticated but embittered photographer forced to host a visiting country cousin, Ceylan won the Grand Prix at Cannes, while the male co-stars shared Best Actor honours. With Distant, Ceylan entered the world-cinema scene as an auteur of note.

Up to this point, Ceylan had shot all of his own work himself. For his next film, Iklimler (Climates, 2006), a Bergman-like depiction of the crumbling marriage of a selfish university professor and his television-producer wife (played by the director himself and his wife, Ebru, who also co-wrote the screenplay), Ceylan hired Gökhan Tiryaki as cinematographer. Tiryaki has shot all of Ceylan’s films since then, including Three Monkeys, Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once upon a Time in Anatolia, 2011), Kis Uykusu (Winter Sleep, 2014) and Ahlat Agaci (The Wild Pear Tree, 2018). Although surrendering the role of cinematographer, Ceylan has continued to edit his own films, citing this job as crucial to the creative process.

On the first viewing of its opening minutes, Three Monkeys might seem like a formalist exercise. A close-up of a middle-aged man’s tired, troubled face, edged by an ebony border of shadow, is followed by an explanatory image of the car he is driving – similarly enveloped in black – as its ever-tinier headlights slowly disappear into the night until the entire screen is swallowed by darkness. Artfully suggestive of a diminishing iris shot from the early days of filmmaking, the construction of the sequence announces a significant role for visual impact in the film, a promise that is kept as the film proceeds.

But formalism must compete with melodrama in Three Monkeys, as viewers discover when the darkness following the car’s disappearance is filled with the piercing sound of screeching brakes. In a disclosure that is much less quick and initially clear than this summary may suggest, a politician named Servet (Ercan Kesal) accidentally kills a pedestrian on a dark road. Fearful of a negative effect on his election campaign, he offers his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl) a monetary reward to take the blame, along with the projected nine-month prison sentence. The driver agrees, leaving his family – consisting of wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and teenaged son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) – on their own, but amply provided for by his desperately grateful boss. In a plot development that would surely have been embraced by Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Servet and Hacer go on to have an affair, to which young Ismail is an accidental witness.

The mention of those masters of film melodrama is no accident: both combined a moviegoer’s taste for the lurid with impeccable compositional style, a combination that is clearly evident in Three Monkeys and one that apparently suits Ceylan’s filmic sensibility. As he has told one interviewer, “The essence of life is melodramatic, especially in Turkey!”2 Reviewers have noted a noirish quality in the film,3 an apparent response to both its narrative and design elements.

Most of the film is set in the family apartment, a modest set of rooms with an impressive view of the Bosporus (Ceylan and his crew filmed within the confines of an actual flat, whose interior and exterior are used to advantage). Helped by Ebru Ceylan’s art design and the gifted cinematography of Tiryaki, Ceylan surrounds the family scenes with the monotony of fading green and cream walls and, once again, a rim of shadow – an ambience that suggests the family is as imprisoned as Eyüp. The causes for this are numerous: lack of money; a condition of social inferiority that makes it obligatory to say yes to a boss’s demands; the scarcity of jobs available to bored young men; a cultural inheritance that requires revenge for wrongdoing; the inability of anyone to maintain a balance of survival and mental peace – in other words, life itself. In such an atmosphere, the graceful movement of white window curtains from an outside breeze is enough to bring an eerily spiritual relief.

The mise en scène is reinforced by the soundtrack. Ceylan famously uses no music in his films beyond an occasional diegetic incursion (in this film, it is a trashy pop song about unrequited love that is, ironically, Hacer’s phone ringtone). Elsewhere, the sound of a rumbling train ominously accompanies Eyüp’s urgent walk to meet Servet near the film’s beginning, and threatening percussive sounds from the weather, motor traffic or the sea lie beneath the action throughout Three Monkeys, as they characteristically do in the director’s other works.

Additional trademark cinematic practices found in Three Monkeys include extended takes, the filming of the backs of characters’ heads to represent pensive thought process and – in an attempt to recreate life’s many ambiguities – withholding information from the audience for long stretches. The film’s fades to black are all too appropriate for the dishonest, exploitative, disloyal and ultimately murderous behaviour that occurs within the closed world of this four-character scenario, culminating in its final shot: a stunning tableau of moral corruption.

The film’s title represents an inversion of the famous advice about evil, originally attributed to Confucius, emblematised by the “three wise monkeys”. Here, to see, hear and speak no evil is not a moral precept, but rather a description of the lies and self-deception that characterise our response to wrongdoing. Neither this evasive policy nor its Confucian opposite brings any satisfaction to the troubled souls captured within Three Monkeys, a painfully incisive representation of human nature and its dark capabilities.

• • •

Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun, 2008 Turkey 109 mins)

Prod Co: Zeitgeist Films Prod: Zeynep Özbatur Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Scr: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal Ed: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ayhan Ergürsel, Bora Göksingöl Phot: Gökhan Tiryaki Prod Des: Ebru Ceylan Sound: Murat Senürkmez, Olivier Goinard, Umut Senyol

Cast: Yavuz Bingöl, Hatice Aslan, Ahmet Rifat Sungar, Ercan Kesal

Endnotes:

  1. Emmanuel Levy, “Three Monkeys: Interview with Turkish Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan,” 20 March 2009, http://emanuellevy.com/interviews/three-monkeys-interview-with-turkish-director-nuri-bilge-ceylan-3. Emphasis added by author.
  2. ibid.
  3. See, for example, Jonathan Romney, “Three Monkeys”, Sight & Sound, vol. 19, no. 3, March 2009, archival copy available at https://web.archive.org/web/20120803012806/old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/4776

About The Author

Joseph Sgammato has written for Sight and Sound, The Wordsworth Circle, The College Language Association Journal, and other publications. He teaches English and Film at Westchester Community College, a division of the State University of New York, in Valhalla, New York and lives in Norwalk, Connecticut.