Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Film: Three Monkeys

Warning: the following post contains partial spoilers.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's
Three Monkeys (Üç maymun), from a screenplay by the director, his wife and former lead Ebru Ceylan (Climates, 2006), and supporting player Ercan Kesal, opens on an extended close-up of a driver followed immediately by a sparely lit, wooded highway, illuminated only by his automobile's headlights. After disappearing deep into the distance, a third set-up frames a gentleman scurrying away from a mass lying motionless in an equally dim segment of asphalt, with an on-coming car entering into the frame. Noticing that the object is a body, the driver speeds off, leaving the former gentleman (Kesal) to reenter the frame from below. Subsequently, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) receives a phone call from the said gentleman, his employer Servet, wherein the latter pleads with Eyüp to take the blame for running down the person in the road - with the enticement that he will receive a large, lump-sum payment upon leaving prison. Eyüp agrees, leaving a wife Hacir (Hatice Aslan) and son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) on the outside.

Ceylan shoots this nighttime phone call in a pale low-key that he likewise adopts for the consequent morning, with Eyüp and family seated before a large window emitting the early day light after what seems clearly to have been a long night. The director, in fact, favors shooting his interiors in these lower keys, which cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki - with whom he collaborated on Climates - lenses with a Sony HDW-F900. Likewise, the distinctive winter storm clouds of the director's 2002 Distant again feature prominently in the DV picture's seaside exteriors, thereby modeling the emotional desolation that increasingly pulses through the narrative; a sudden thunderstorm at the film's conclusion, for example, exteriorizes individual psychology. Likewise, the aforesaid pale morning light crystallizes that morning's combined feelings of exhaustion and desperation. In sum, Ceylan's mise-en-scène proves substantially mimetic in articulating the film's psychological frame.

The substance of the film's cognitive subject matter migrates from Eyüp's incarceration to Hacir's infidelity, particularly after Ismail discovers that his mother has taken up with her husband's employer Servet. We first see the pair together in Servet's office, where Hacir's Turkish musical ring tone comically stalls their meeting. With Servet waiting beside his window, Hacir leaves without a word. (Ceylan utilizes a point-of-view shot to represent this depature.) Servet, however, chases after the gorgeous forty-something on the street below, ultimately succeeding in getting her into his car (after a similarly humorous reverse-shot in which a car-full of young men collectively glower at Servat) to drive her home. During this ride, Ceylan utilizes one of a series of sound bridges in which the audio precedes - often by a substantial duration - its formulation within the space of the film; that is, we begin to hear their conversation before they begin speaking on screen.

Their relationship proceeds by intimation, with Hacir stealing away to answer her cell phone, or dangling her high-heeled shoe on the tip of her toes - until, that is, Ismail returns home to hear his mother and a man behind her bedroom door. The young man looks into the keyhole through which their shadows dance, and though Ceylan cuts to a reverse-angle of the boy's eye rather than a p.o.v. composition, his reaction confirms our shared suspicion. Subsequently, following another untimely ring of Hacir's mobile phone, the recently released Eyüp rips the strap off his wife's negligee, pushing the woman onto their bed as he violently fondles her brest. Though, it should be added, Hacir approximates the role of an Ebru Ceylan surrogate in the narrative, both in terms of their general appearance and also for Climates and Three Monkeys's shared emphasis on marital infidelity, their significant age gap does militate any direct identification (in contradistinction again to Climates, where the real-life husband and wife played the romantically estranged leads). Three Monkeys, in other words, seeks to equal Climates's immediacy without procuring an equally personal stake.

Three Monkeys also adopts - and indeed extends - the earlier film's utilization of fantasized imagery, though to diminishing ends: here, a dead son (the family trauma cliché par excellence) appears sporadically in a narrative where his presence seems less than organic. On the other hand, the film's careful manipulation of reverse-field editing does ideally convey the film's deliberate regulation of narrative information. In essence, Three Monkeys modifies a frontally staged, classical shot/reverse-shot and point-of-view structure by delaying the film's reverse fields; at key junctures, refusing the opposed composition, and in other instances, supplying a reverse-field in the place of a p.o.v. In addition to the aforementioned keyhole example, a second pivotal usage of this last techniques occurs with the cut from an extreme long shot of Servet and Hacir standing near a cliffside. Here, Ceylan follows the first set-up with an axis-out framing the same interaction beneath the arched bow of a nearby tree. As such, Ceylan confirms the status of the first shot as surveillance without disclosing the identity of the viewer. Ceylan thus has remade classical editing in the image of his conventional crime narrative.

In sum, then, Three Monkeys largely formulates its subject - consonant with the director's Climates in particular - through an organically consistent style, with regard to its editing and also its lighting, in spite of the occasional lapse (as in the dead child motif). Though not to the level of the director's supremely Tarkovskian Distant or his masterpiece to date, Climates, Three Monkeys nonetheless remains unmistakably good filmmaking, a far more impressive work than its initial minor reputation would suggest.

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