Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Three Monkeys"

Turkish Melancholy and Submission to Fate

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's new film once again probes the motif of hopelessness and thereby touches upon an age-old Turkish theme. Amin Farzanefar on the Cannes prize-winning melodrama "Three Monkeys"

​​ The film's plot is quite simple. Servet, an ambitious Istanbul politician offers Eyüp, his chauffeur, a large sum of money to take the blame for a fatal car accident in his place. While Eyüp serves a year-and-a-half prison sentence, Eyüp's son, Ismail, pleads with his mother, Hacer, to ask Servet for an advance payment so he can purchase a new car. In return, the attractive Hacer enters into a relationship with Servet.

Ismail appears to ignore the affair. Even the father, Eyüp, avoids acknowledging the truth long after his release, as he, like all the others, benefits from his ignorance.

"Three Monkeys" documents in detail how in biding their time, the characters' shabby web of lies gradually tears apart and how pervasive silence on the most essential matters can only end in an outburst of rage. By the film's denouement, the protagonists are all ensnared by guilt – or are dead.

Bleak downfall on high gloss celluloid

"Three Monkeys" is therefore a typical Ceylan film with the visual brilliance his audiences have come to expect. The luminous photography is polished with desaturated colours in post-processing to create a depressive aesthetic style that is nonetheless grounded in realism. The story is edited and told with Ceylan's usual slow rhythm. This bone-dry family drama was awarded with the Jury Prize at Cannes. Ceylan's Turkish art house cinema has proved an international success.

​​ As with his previous films, the 50-year-old Ceylan sets his story unmistakably in Turkey. It portrays strongly polarized gender roles, the relationship between father and son, and the peculiar codex that binds the chauffeur Eyüp to Servet like a farmer to his feudal lord. Ceylan expands upon this feudal structure, which entraps Eyüp as its victim at the beginning of the film, so that by the end, Eyüp attempts to suppress and exploit those in his environment that are even weaker than himself.

A basic theme constantly found in Ceylan's films – and in Turkey as well – is the eternal opposition of a superficially Western and modern Istanbul and a timeless, archaic Anatolian Orient. This theme receives a particularly intense treatment in "Three Monkeys." Numerous cinematographic signs mark the tracks of an inner-Turkish migration that binds the metropolis with the village, such as the train line on which Eyüp's family lives and the traditional wedding dances brought to Istanbul.

Turkish melodrama

American western films constantly played with the fault lines between civilization and wilderness. Ceylan's work can be seen as a successful continuation of this tradition.

Another comparison is also immediately apparent. More than any other of his films, the independent filmmaker has embraced the popular and trivial elements of a genre that has been copied and varied to excess in Turkish film history, namely, the melodrama. This genre, which tells the tale of passion, betrayal, unfaithfulness, and revenge, is deeply rooted in the national psyche.

​​ Ceylan's protagonists find themselves on the slippery slope from the very beginning, whether through fate, the system, or the "conditions of production," and the film follows them along their inevitable descent into adversity. Ismail, Hacer, and Eyüp have the possibility of speaking with each other, trusting each other, and even looking each other in the eyes – but instead, Ceylan documents how they increasingly lose themselves in the grey zone between knowing and ignorance, victim and culprit, and good and evil.

Moral categories are thereby broken down. It is no longer possible to say who is the villain. Even the classical victim, the woman, is portrayed as a calculating character. The melodrama hinges around three poles, these three monkeys, who are primarily, and also out of necessity, motivated by a craving for money and power.

New Turkish realism

These themes place Ceylan in the immediate proximity to another, less well-known representative of the new Turkish realism, Zeki Demirkubuz. He also provides a new take on all the traditional themes of Turkish cinema – the social pecking order, the vain attempt to escape from one's social milieu, and the eternal failure of all dreams of advancement or the answer to all prayers. In Demirkubuz' interpretation, the trivial themes of the melodrama are continued, but with a certain emotional acceleration.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his cast in Cannes, France
Happy and successful melancholiacs: Ceylan and his team won the award for best director at this year's film festival in Cannes

​​ Ceylan's work is also marked by a sensationalism that matches the heat and hysteria of this cinematographic narrative form with the exhaustion and resignation of its characters. There is an insight into the inescapability of their situation in the midst of an urban, industrialized environment and a net of corruption and the entanglement of power relationships.

This disillusionment is symbolized by the desperately bleak love song that can be repeatedly heard in the film's dramatic situations – but only as a melody on Hacer's mobile phone.

Between Fassbinder and Dostoyevsky

Ceylan and Demirkubuz relate to their defeated protagonists in the tradition of Dostoyevsky's psychological pessimism. And both directors recall the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who set his existential dramas in a concrete, realistic milieu.

In terms of content, Ceylan displays an aesthetic affinity to the great "auteur" filmmakers - Antonioni, Bresson, Bergmann, Tarkovski, and Kiarostami. Bresson's "L'Argent," Antonioni's "L'Eclisse," and Fassbinder's "Liebe ist kälter als der Tod" all come to mind as films where everything centres on money, love, work, dependence, spiritual upheaval in the industrial age, and the destruction of tradition.

The most recent German contribution to this genre was Christian Petzold's "Jerichow." This film also leaps through the years and over continents like a newly filmed version of the melodrama "The Postman Always Rings Twice," while examining the East-West contradictions anew. It seems as if in times of global crises, filmmakers find themselves moving closer together.

Although Nuri Bilge Ceylan has so often been said to have a hermetically sealed perspective on things, he nevertheless has a feeling for the global situation. And it is a dead sure feeling at that.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2009

Amin Farzanefar is a film journalist and an expert on Turkish and Iranian cinema. His latest book is "Kino des Orients – Stimmen aus einer Region" published by Schüren Verlag.

Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys). A film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey/France/Italy, 2008, 109 min.) with Ahmet Rifat Sungar, Hatice Aslan, Yavuz Bingöl, and Ercan Kesal

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