The family lives in an apartment block so tall and emaciated as to look unfinished and precarious. Their dining room boasts a spectacular view of the Bosporus, yet its waters are choppy and forbidding, and between it and the building lie a freeway and railway, whose pedestrian underpass casts jagged shadows on its users. The story begins with an accident caused by a Turkish politician, and the politician persuading his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) to take the rap, a year’s stretch at most, with a substantial reward at the end of it. Such negotiations have a tendency to proliferate, so while Eyüp’s imprisoned his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan), concerned for their son Ismail (Rifat Sungar), who’s seemingly unable to find work or get into university, comes to the politician’s office asking for an advance. The politician names, or rather implies, his price, and perhaps Hacer was hoping for such a discreet agreement all along. But what will happen when Eyüp comes home?
Co-scripted with the director’s wife Ebru Bilge Ceylan and actor Ecran Kesal, who plays the politician, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (Üç maymun) weds the contemporary image and atmosphere-rich European art film with the fundamentals of film noir. Unlike Christian Petzold’s Jerichow, rooted in James M. Cain, or Béla Tarr’s The Man From London, taken from Georges Simenon’s novel, Three Monkeys does not, so far as I can tell, have a single overt source, though there are intriguing echoes of The Reckless Moment and The Deep End, both adaptations of the same Elisabeth Sanxay Holding story. Unlike most films noir, Three Monkeys doesn’t evoke desperation through taut pacing, neurotic framing, or heated verbal exchange. In keeping with Ceylan’s distinctive style, the film above all broods luxuriously, in sumptuous digital images of looming storms and scenes sodden with unease and suspicion, imbued with an aquatic tinge that renders everyone victims of motion sickness.
Several sequences feel incidental while underway, yet everything counts at the end of Ceylan’s karmic equation, even Hacer’s comical ringtone. Much is destined to remain unresolved however, particularly once the stream of water imagery is completed by visits from the ghost of a drowned child. There are these two turning points for Hacer, wordless, nearly static moments in which a decision is made, one where she comes home, slumps in a chair, and flips off her shoe, another where she lies on her bed having been mauled by her angry husband, wearing lingerie that’s red and transparent, while a gust of wind balloons the curtain. It says a lot about Ceylan’s approach, and about the potency of Aslan’s screen presence, that both moments are pretty riveting. Ceylan, who is also a photographer, could be seen as bearing a kinship with the late Michelangelo Antonioni, in that landscape, weather and architecture play such a central role in his method of storytelling. Yet rather than exclude nuanced performance, this method depends utterly on actors who can deliver heaps of drama with a glance or a gesture. And despite a narrative that can at times teeter on a sort of bleak math, the cast of Three Monkeys delivers in spades.