Thursday, January 15, 2009

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2009)

I wrote this short advanced review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys, Turkey's submission for the Oscars, for The Film Experience. When the film opens wide, I might post a longer review, but we'll see. These are my thoughts in a nutshell. I thought I'd post it here rather than point you over there.

by James Hansen

With the 9-film shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film announced, let us all open our ears to the Annual Critics Who Cry “Snub!” While you can typically count me in that group, there are only a couple films that people are really upset about being snubbed (Gomorrah, Captain Abu Raed...but really, did anyone really expect Jordan to get a nomination the first year it submits?) unlike last years full-blown snub debacle (4 Months, Edge of Heaven, I Just Didn’t Do It, The Orphanage, Persepolis, Silent Light, Taxidermia, XXY...none of which even made the shortlist!) in favor of the weakest set of foreign film nominees in a decade.

Maybe the new rules are doing some good. The inclusion of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest feature Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun) proves, if nothing else, that the committee is getting a little more daring in their choices and, at long last, not afraid to reject generic, period (war) dramas. Turkey has never been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and, while Ceylan’s strongest feature Distant (Uzak) was submitted for Oscar consideration in 2003 and failed to clinch the nomination, Three Monkeys is a touch more accessible for Oscar voters and may provide Turkey and Ceylan the nomination they deserve.

In Three Monkeys, Ceylan’s assured direction maintains the somber, quiet, and brooding tone illustrated so effectively in Distant and Climates; however, Three Monkeys features a more straight forward narrative, which makes it a great introduction to Ceylan’s work even though its narrative attributes end up being its major weakness. After Servet, a wealthy politician, accidentally kills a pedestrian, he calls his lower class driver Eyüp to take the fall in exchange for a large sum of money for him and his family when he gets out. So begins his family’s attempts to cover up the truth of their situation, which leads to the disconnection and isolation that comes with the acceptance of, and refusal to recognize, their deception.

Ceylan’s direction is as sure handed as ever, which makes Three Monkeys a technical marvel. Ceylan has an acute sense for tone and mood, similar to Hungarian master Bela Tarr, that establishes the fascinating contradiction of claustrophobic isolation. But, just as Tarr’s The Man From London wanders off course with its dedication to narrative, Three Monkeys' lugubrious feel fails to completely mesh with its highly emotional melodramatic narrative. The material packs a punch of its own, albeit a familiar one, but Ceylan’s perfectly muted pitch, so focused on repression and interiority, highlights how emotionally vacant the bigger dramatic moments are in comparison to the powerful subtelties that enlivened the best parts of Three Monkeys and Ceylan's previous films.

Three Monkeys features sequences as strong as anything Ceylan has done, but falls short of the beauty and power seen in Distant and Climates. At the same time, it is the kind of gutsy “art house” foreign film that always deserves wider recognition and is consistently snubbed by Oscar voters. I’m still skeptical it will crack the final five (it’s less commercial than Oscar ever goes for and Ceylan is a young director who could win down the road) but, despite its faults, I’ll be rooting for Three Monkeys all the way.



Anonymous said...

In the end that didn't seem too truncated. :)

And you forgot about Let the Right One In, which didn't even get to make it in the pool!


Tony Dayoub said...

Good overview. This film has a tendency to grow on you.

James Hansen said...

Tony- I didn't mention "Let The Right One In" because it can't be considered an Academy snub if the nominating country didn't submit it for consideration. That's a frustrating process of its own which I think should be changed, but not one I can fault the Academy for. I don't think foreign film nominating committees will ever go for the vampire movie if they want to win though. Doesn't seem like Oscars cup of tea.

Tony D- Thanks for the comment. Even though the film didn't hit me as much as it wanted to, any film directed this sure handedly will work to some extent and continue to grow. Ceylan knows whats up for sure, even though I think the main plot/script is more empty than it lets on. The direction saves the day.

And we're working on the 20 actors meme! It will be ready soon!

Chuck W said...

While this wasn't the slam dunk praise-a-thon I was hoping for, it still rekindled my enthusiasm for this film; 3 Monkeys remains one of the films I've anticipated most this year, and ultimately remains one of the most elusive. I have not seen Ceylan's other films, but this looks as if it were designed specifically to please all of my tastes and desires in cinema. I really hope this pulls through and gives Bashir and The Class some solid competition.

(Of course, don't get me started on the egregious-as-fuck Gomorrah snub. Boo, hiss!)

And I'm still fuming that a middle-of-the-road mess like The Conterfeiters pulled off an Oscar win in 2008 -- a flagship year for cinema both foreign and domestic.

James Hansen said...

Chuck- Check out DISTANT and CLIMATES for slam-dunk praise-a-thons. They're right up your alley, methinks. I don't think it'll crack the final 5 (unless it gets some major help from the new "Phase 2" people) but here's hoping. It may be flawed, but I'll take it over any of last years nominees in a heartbeat.

I saw GOMORRAH at NYFF and agree that it's a snub, but I personally don't praise it to high heavens either. I probably like it a little more, on whole, than THREE MONKEYS, but I'd rather see Ceylan and Turkey get the nomination/shortlist mention anyways. I usually don't play Oscars that way (I loathe "career" awards, a la Scorsese) but it seems like its a country competition as much as a filmic one. Nothing against Italy, but it's good to see some lesser recognized cinematic countries get some well-deserved marks.

PIPER said...


You been tagged by me.

Chuck W said...

Zoinks! Thanks for letting me know, PIPER. Looks like I've got a new project to work on. :)