Thursday, June 18, 2009

Movie review: 'Three Monkeys' a moody look at deception

Hatice Aslan, left, and Yavuz Bingol in Three Monkeys.

By John Thomason

The plot is the stuff of many a pedestrian potboiler. A bleary-eyed politician runs over a man with his car in the dead of night and, not wanting to sink his career in an election year, talks his underling driver into accepting the blame. It’ll mean nearly a year in prison for manslaughter, but the politician will keep sending his family his paycheck, and he’ll have a nice sum waiting for him when he gets out.

But a lot can happen while a man whiles away nine months in the hoosegow. The politician begins an affair with the man’s vulnerable wife, who eventually falls in love with the politician.

Treading over the tired terrain of political corruption and extramarital affairs, the plot description of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys reads like any number of films you might catch at 1 a.m. on basic cable (if it was a Hollywood film, Ashley Judd would no doubt play the vulnerable wife). So it’s a good thing nobody watches Nuri Bilge Ceylan movies for their plots.

They watch them for the way the Turkish auteur poeticizes atmosphere, caresses the film form and shakes the very medium’s complacent foundations – something he’s able to do with silence as much as actions. His plots are as insignificant as the stories in films by Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky or, most aptly, his European contemporary Bruno Dumont; i.e., mere launching pads for pulsating psychological penetrations.

Ceylan’s breakthrough in the West came with the Dostoyevskian drama Distant (2002), a title that nicely summarizes the glacial detachment he so often keeps from his characters. He followed it up with the polarizing Climates (2006), a laconic study of the thawing of a relationship that includes an unforgettable sex scene in which violence and pleasure unsettlingly commingle.

The natural elements played key roles in both of these pictures, and in Three Monkeys, which won Ceylan the best director's award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the perpetually downcast skies suggest an otherwordly warning, a metaphysical apocalypse set to consume the family of Eyup (Yavuz Bingol), the soft-spoken driver who takes the rap for his boss.

One feels Ceylan is conducting the apocalypse from afar, viewing his creations like a disappointed deity. A filmmaker of extremes, he all but despises medium shots, either analyzing his actors from a pitiless, microscopic distance or shoving our faces in their sweaty, sleep-deprived, frayed countenances.

Indeed, the emotional disintegration detailed so cruelly in Climates has expanded to a physical disintegration as well. When Eyup returns, his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan), fresh off an affair with the slimy politico Servet (Ercan Kesal), dons a new teddy that would look sexy on a woman who actually cared, but it’s clear that husband and wife have become different people – which leads to a bout of rough sexual aggression without the perverse pleasure provided in Climates.

Eyup’s return signals a stronger shift toward horror-movie stylizations that previously only came out in the treatment of the couple’s troubled son Ismail (Ismail’s sudden assault of his mother over her expected affair, for instance, or the curious moment when he vomits blood while waiting for a subway). Jolting images of doors creaking open, spooky winds rustling through domestic tableaux and menacing characters emerging from shadows almost validate the creepy, not-quite-false-advertising trailer.

There are unexplained elements in Three Monkeys – like the title, for one – that are as strange as Ceylan’s formalist quirks, such as the numerous disconnects between sound and image. But illuminating from this occasionally Lynchian clutter is a story simple in its classical morality: Corruption begets corruption in a sad cycle of deception.

If Eyup’s family ends up with someone approaching stability, it comes at a great cost. The storm that continues to rage above their heads can tell you that much.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THREE MONKEYS (UC MAYMUN). Distributor: NBC Films; Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Cast: Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Rifat Sungar and Ercan Kesal; Language: In Turkish with English subtitles; Venues: Today-Sunday, Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale; Friday-Thursday, June 25, Lake Worth Playhouse

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