Sometimes, there’s no pleasing critics and cinephiles — they’ll dreamily wish someone like Turkish arthouse force Nuri Bilge Ceylan would break his introspective paradigm and make a genre film, and then when he does, kinda, with “Three Monkeys,” everyone compliments it tamely with canned praise. “Suspenseful!” was a common pullquote, though “pulpy” was a term I didn’t expect to see but did, in the New York Times.
Pulpy? Ceylan’s movie is as elliptical and internalized and visually elusive as anything by Hou, but it’s as if actually having a story to tell automatically takes you down a notch or two. And the flavor of the tale defines what the film is for most critics, living as we do in a world still oversaturated in the aura of noir.
The trap of having a film about crime and fate labeled “neo-noir” may well be inescapable, even if the story per se has nothing to do with classic noir ideas, and has roots in Greek tragedy, Zola and the Middle Eastern traditions of family honor and retribution. For some reason, just calling “Three Monkeys” a Turkish noir reduces it, ghettoizes it as an Asian lift of themes that we ethnocentrically think are ours alone, or at least belong to American cinema by way of French fatalism and German style. (Funny, I don’t remember hearing “No Country for Old Men” cornered as a neo-noir — are we, critically speaking, caught up in Americianizing the world again here?)
I think the least we can say is that what most people think of as noir themes are as old as Aeschylus’ last papyrus scrap, and we probably should not define many millennia of human storytelling with a cool movie genre that lasted, technically, all of 25 years at best.
Typical of Ceylan, we come at the narrative gist sideways, by way of innocent witnesses, who stumble upon a body and a car on a night road — we see a man dash from the scene into the shadows, but they don’t. Soon thereafter, a politician up for re-election offers to pay his chauffeur Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) to take the rap for him and spend a year in a jail, away from his son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Şungar), an aimless, sleep-in student, and Hacer (Hatice Aslon), the boy’s sexy, nagging mother, both living in an Istanbul condo.
The year begins to pass, the politico loses his contest, the mother and son decide to bargain for an advance on the money in order to buy a car, and things get horrifically complicated emotionally. The plot rolls downhill with a familiar momentum, but there are potholes and cliffs along the way that are less about genre and more about love and its propensity to devour itself.
Still, Ceylan’s movies are not conceptual — “Climates” (2006), his best film, is about a silently dissolving marriage, and that’s all — but textural. Virtually every hyperrealist scene is framed several degrees away from orthodoxy, most of the action happens off-frame or at a hypnotizing distance, and characters never reveal what they think is going on but are not sure about. It’s a syntax of anxiety, shot under steely, brooding Mediterranean skies, so we don’t need to be told that when the boiling Eyüp comes home, finally, there will be trouble of an irreparable sort, but we still don’t know what form it will take. Ceylan won Best Director at Cannes, his fourth award in five years there, and fittingly, “Three Monkeys” is best seen as an art film vision of modern life, not at all a genre piece.