In just five films, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has become one of the most intensely discussed directors and every new work he brings out sparks debate as to whether he excessively favours style over substance. Even though his 1997 debut The Small Town and the follow-up Clouds of May (1999) were for a long time unavailable to UK audiences (in addition to his 2006 film Climates, Artificial Eye released a double-disc set of Ceylan’s early work on DVD in May 2007), his third, award-winning feature Uzak (2002) propelled Ceylan to fame beyond the international film festival circuit. An individual stylist determined to make a mark on the viewer’s consciousness, he composes avowedly personal and sombre meditations on human alienation and the fragile temporal nature of even the most intimate relationships. However, as is often the case when a work is so stylistically distinctive, Uzak and his fourth feature Climates (2006) divided the audience into those who were seduced by the poetry and artistry of the imagery and those who were left cold and unsatisfied by it.
With Three Monkeys, Ceylan takes things a step further, pushing forward into much darker, more expressionistic territory in an intoxicating tale of bad faith, deceit, murder and simmering fears and desires. He maintains an orchestration of motion and stillness that feels more claustrophobic than in his previous films although here again, suspense is mainly built upon the character’s inability to communicate in moments of visual ecstasy that come close to repealing the cinematic laws of gravity.
Three Monkeys is much more obviously dramatic than Ceylan’s preceding works: the story starts with driver Eyí¼p (played by Turkish singer Yavuz Bingí¶l) being asked by his boss, a local politician facing elections, to take the rap for the killing of a pedestrian who was run over by his car one night. Eyí¼p agrees to go to prison for a brief period of time in exchange for a pay-off to his wife Hacer and his only son ísmail. During the hot summer of Eyí¼p’s incarceration, Ismail drifts into dubious friendships while Hacer strays into an affair with the politician after requesting more money from him. Although ísmail discovers his mother’s betrayal he is unable to act, but when Eyí¼p returns tension erupts, revealing an almost unbearable lack of understanding between the three tortured souls who have never been entirely comfortable in their roles within the family.
Seemingly intent on reviving the spirit and film language of the ‘greats’ such as Tarkovsky, Antonioni or Ozu for the 21st century, Ceylan’s work has always been remarkable for its sheer ambition and cinematographic proficiency. His win of best director award for Three Monkeys at the Cannes Film Festival last year is entirely justified for this angst-ridden drama is perhaps his most accessible as well as most consistent film, revealing an impressive maturity and a rigorous visual sense to match it. Three Monkeys is not without certain melodramatic flaws, but they are absorbed by the film’s stylistic plausibility, by the way the framing and the stunning use of digital photography creates its own sort of psychological reality. It is in the long pauses between words that the film creates tension, in the anxious, sorrowful glances subtly reinforced by the irruption of the ever-present soundscape that mixes thunder, train signals and cell-phone ring tones. Those who go beyond the film’s imperfections will find an exquisitely composed cinematic experience that offers as many wonders as subjects for debate.