Weather is metaphysical in Three Monkeys, as it is in Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr and Mizoguchi, and it is partly what gives Nuri Bilge Ceylan's fifth feature its portentous significance. As we notice the film investigating the lives of its three leading characters - a father, mother and a son - within the context of a loosely thriller plot, so it wants to contain the echo of a broader purpose than narrative event implies. It could even be argued that as with many a metaphysical appropriation of the thriller, the film barely works on the narratively plausible level, and this is where it might be useful to differentiate between the procedural thriller and the moral investigation. The investigation of the event gets half-ignored for the investigation of the soul of the characters. There is a passage in Somerset Maugham's Notebooks where he says "my native gifts are not remarkable, but I have a certain force of character which has enabled me in measure to supplement my deficiencies. I have common sense. Most people cannot see anything." "But I can see what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall."
Ceylan would seem to be one of those filmmakers who wishes to see through the brick wall, and it may be why we forgive him a certain lack of common sense. Some years ago Gilbert Adair wrote a short article in The Sunday Times about this absence of common sense in many an art cinema film, saying "there arrives that inevitable moment, in practically every new art movie, when the characters' behavioural patterns simply lose all contact with identifiable human conduct." Would Adair claim Three Monkeys is yet another case? For example, early in the film, after a politician runs someone over, he persuades his driver (namely the aforementioned father) to take the rap for the crime. The sort of information that would seem essential Ceylan ignores. We don't follow the intricacies of the court case, nor do we have a scene where the driver, Servet (Ercan Kesal) discusses with his family that he will take the blame: though they obviously know he is innocent and taking the fall. The politician gives them a monthly sum, and will also offer the family a lump sum after the father is released from prison. This is where not only textual information is missing, but sub-textual motivations also. It is one thing to elide the court case and the family discussing the father's willingness to be held responsible for the hit and run, but it is still another to leave one musing over why the father would be willing to claim culpability. Certainly, this is not a wealthy family: the father, Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) is a driver and the wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and her son, Ismail (Rifat Sungar) work in a factory. Maybe the lump sum will allow for a better life after he is released, but is this not the sort of supposition that should be partially grounded in narrative information? However, these would seem to be the conventions of the thriller piece: the social motivations for actions consistent with the common sense Maugham talks about. Ceylan, however, seems interested in a sense that is less common, and whether the film works or not depends on how deeply one feels Ceylan interrogates this uncommonness.
In a Sight and Sound interview, the director claimed the image that first came to mind in relation to the project was Ismail hitting his mother. This comes about a quarter of the way through the film: the father is in prison, and the mother has embarked on an affair with businessman and politician Servet, who is responsible for putting him there. One morning the son, Ismail, goes off to visit the father in prison, and at the train station is physically sick on the platform, staining his clean white shirt. He returns home to change, and hears noises coming from his mother's bedroom. Instead of bursting into the room he waits outside the house and watches as the man leaves, noticing it is indeed the very man responsible for his father being in prison. Afterwards, Ismail goes back into the house, interrogates his mother, Hacer, and slaps her after she starts telling him lies. What does this moment tell us about the film, taking into account that it is the first image that came to Ceylan, and where he mentions that in Turkish culture "your mother is like a Goddess. There would have to be a very strong reason to want to hit her"?
It needs to be a slap that reverberates, a moment that echoes back to the father's imprisonment, the family's acceptance of the situation, and the son's realisation that he is implicated in the event also. It is because Ismail wanted an advance on the money that his mother had gone to see Servet in the first place. Is this the son slapping the mother as a son, as a surrogate father, as one kicks a chair out of self-frustration? Perhaps it is all these things, and so though we may propose that Ceylan's film is weak on narrative plausibility, it is powerfully effective not so much on text and sub-text, as 'reverberative meaning'. It is this reverberative meaning that can lead to accusations of portentousness; as though the specific details get lost to abstract meanings. Yet should the portentous be a term of abuse or simply a descriptive word to explain what the film is doing? Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound invokes Bela Tarr's The Man from London while we could add Ceylan's fellow Turkish director Zeki Demirkubuz's Fate and Confession, as well as Tarr's earlier Damnation and Iranian director Rafi Pitt's It's Winter, to understand the tonal preoccupations of a certain type of cinema. When Sight and Sound's Nick James says the "characters' psychology in Three Monkeys is all about transgression and guilt, it drives the narrative more than usual", Ceylan replies that he wonders about evil. Evil here is not the individual action; more a metaphysical concept.
As in the other films we've just invoked, the problem isn't characterisational but metaphysically pertinent; this is partly why we mentioned that the weather in Three Monkeys isn't simply meteorological, but conceptual. Near the end of the film, Servet has been killed and it seems the son has committed the crime. As the father looks to find someone to pay penance for a crime someone else has committed, as the father has paid for one he didn't commit, so the father is seen in long shot on the roof of the house that his family have a small apartment in, and the heavens burst. The idea of the heavens bursting is, of course, a colloquial clich and one of the many unthinking traces of religiosity in contemporary language, but films like Three Monkeys are interested in that trace. When Ceylan mentions his concern with evil, this is not the unavoidable language that is a throwback to earlier, broader Manichean notions of good and bad; it seems a deliberate invocation of these traces. When the rain comes at the end of the film, it is consistent with the wind in Satantango, the snow in It's Winter, the rain in Tarkovsky. It has the quality of the impending, of a broader reality than the immediately human yet which denotes not so much bad weather; more that it connotes malevolent values.
Yet we want to propose that at the same time Ceylan needs to avoid the two most pressing dangers of the portentous use of nature; the pathetic fallacy and the biblically significant. The former is a literary device that gives human feelings to nature. In the words of The Handbook to Literature, "it is the carrying over to inanimate objects of the moods and passions of a human being." The biblically significant indicates how God creates a flood or a plague of locusts to condemn man's actions on earth. In the first instance, Ceylan would be offering the symbolically psychological; in the second the religiously purposeful. But if the film proves important it resides in the exploration of ethical buck-passing; in one's refusal to take responsibility for one's actions. Ceylan needs to pull off the tricky problem of proposing that the accumulation of ethical ill-deeds contributes to a malign universe, without quite saying the universe is itself malign.
One of the questions the film seems to be asking is, what is it that makes one weak? The answer may reside in this instance in poverty, emotional devastation and sexual desire. If the film finally offers more sympathy for the family than it does for the businessman, then it is because Servet's 'weaknesses' come from misused strengths. He can persuade the father to take responsibility for the crime and seduce the wife because he has money. His ethical failings come from financial power, and there is nothing to suggest his personal life is anything other than comfortable: he seems to have a wife and child, and lives in a leafy district of the city. The family though have lost a child many years before, share a cramped apartment, and are obviously poor enough for the father to be willing to serve nine months in prison for a crime he didn't commit in return for modest financial recompense.
This is the social and psychological reality of the characters' lives, but visually the film indicates a broader, more encompassing perspective on reality; evident in relation to lighting, sound and colour. At the beginning of the film, Servet is driving through the darkness and the film gives us a long shot as the screen turns increasingly to black so that at the end of the scene all we have is a small pool of light from the headlights of the car as it takes a bend. Next, we hear the car screeching and afterwards notice that Servet has obviously run someone over. This is a play on light and sound as Ceylan metonymises meaning, allowing the part to signify a broader whole, while at the same time generating metaphysical significance. It would seem to owe a debt to the Kieslowski car crash at the beginning of Three Colours Blue, where the event that sets in motion the film's narrative is off-screen, and we hear the crash and witness the aftermath. In each instance, it is the metonymic creating a space for the metaphysical as the film offers an air of indifference to the materiality of the event and instead invokes a wider dimension.
This is also, as in Three Colours Blue, a filtered world, and we might usefully again invoke Adair's article on the art film as he takes Three Colours: Blue and The Double Life of Veronique and other films to task for "grating on the ear", and "the calculated manner in which they bully the spectator into submission". Are the heavy filter-effects used in Kieslowski's films and Ceylan's work a metaphysical bullying? Just as Ceylan and Kieslowski refuse the materiality of the event and metonymise it through sound, do they also filter reality so that it becomes overly metaphysical? Ceylan's visual approach would seem to be pushing the Kieslowski over-determination further and could be called digital expressionism. It is a film that utilises digital filmmaking aware that the digital is no longer an indexical form but, if you like, an iconic means of expression. Cinema in the digital age isn't an index, an imprint from life, but a digital reconstruction of life. As D. N. Rodowick says in his books The Virtual Life of Film, "there is a debate or discussion today because we are confronted with something new in the image, something that disturbs the perceptual defaults of the chemically based analogical image." He notes "we confront something that looks like photography, and continues to serve many of its cultural functions. Yet a felt change is occurring, or perhaps has occurred in our phenomenological relationship with these images." If for example Andr Bazin in his essays in What is Cinema? could have problems with expressionist film of the twenties because he thought it was going against the indexical nature of cinema, for the iconic aspect of the recreated, by such reasoning should digital, which works from the recreation of reality rather than an imprint of that reality, be in essence expressionistic? Godard in the second section of Eloge de L'amour, Lynch with Inland Empire, Jia Zhangke with Still Life and Ceylan here are all filmmakers who absorb the expressionistic dimension of the digital, as if playing up the iconic aspect of the form. Yet at the same time, they have also all talked about the freedom to capture reality using smaller cameras. In this sense digital possesses a paradoxical ontology: its essence seems both to demand an acceptance of eschewing the indexical but also allows for a greater exploration of reality. Here the metaphysical and the real come together.
Three Monkeys is both intimate and expressionistic, as Ceylan films in an actual apartment so small that "we always had to shoot from the next room" (Sight and Sound), thus indicating the realist aspect that bigger cameras might have hampered. But equally, as Nick James notes, "Three Monkeys has a brooding melancholy built of thunderstorms and purple skies." However, it is maybe this combination of realism and digital expressionism that gives the film a 'meta-physic', a balancing act between the metaphysical abstractions and the immediate physical realities. By utilising the found reality of the flat, Ceylan works with a space with built in anomalies. Where Tom Dawson in his review in The List sees railway tracks and the sea as "symbols of escape [and] are visually contrasted with the entrapment of the characters", the haunting aspect lies not only in their symbolic function, but more especially in their ironic actuality. As we see from the house, the railway, the road and the sea, these are not so much all symbolic means of escape, but connotatively different aspects of the real. For example to live next to railway tracks is rather different from living next to the sea, which is rather different from living next to a main road. Ceylan may have said "he didn't want to be near the sea because it made the house too pretty, but we had to be there because of the railway". But this sounds like he settled for a compromised mise-en-scene in the sense that it could only be partially expressionistic; yet the unyielding nature of the real makes the expressionist aspect subtler and less over-determined than Ceylan intended.
Hence though Ceylan utilises filter effects, he also uses found realities, and part of the film's achievement comes from working between the two. The same tension resides in the sound and in the lighting. Again Adair comes to mind and his comment that at the beginning of the nineties there was a "concurrent vogue for grotesquely over-determined soundtracks". Michel Chion in his book Audio-Vision, published in 1990, commented on "noises, those humble foot soldiers, have remained the outcasts of theory, having been assigned a purely utilitarian and figurative value and consequently neglected". In Ceylan's film sound works a little like his use of filters in respect to the real. Film writers including David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in Film Art: an Introduction have talked of fidelity, sound that is faithful to its source not necessarily from the point of view of source sound - sound recorded on location - but sound that is consistent with its diegetic source. "If a film shows us a barking dog and we hear a barking noise, that sound is faithful to its source; the sound maintains fidelity. But if the picture of the barking dog is accompanied by the sound of a cat meowing, there enters a disparity between sound and image - a lack of fidelity." Comedy often plays on this notion of fidelity, and Bordwell mentions Jacques Tati's use of a cello string each time a door swings in Mr. Hulot's Holiday. Generally, this is an infidelity that doesn't interest Ceylan; what does is a sort of ambient infidelity taking into account Chion's notion of ambient sound. Here Chion talks of "sound that envelops a scene and inhabits its space, without raising the question of the identification or visual embodiment of its source: birds singing, churchbells ringing." This is sound that need do no more than fill out the context of the milieu; it doesn't draw out specific sounds by making one surprisingly louder than those surrounding it. It is ambient infidelity, however, that runs through much of Ceylan's work. We notice it in the scene where the cousin in Uzak goes for a walk in the snow. As we hear dogs barking in the distance, kids playing in long shot, and a woman trudging past, we hear these noises, but not the central character when he walks, though in terms of proximity the sound of his walking should be the loudest sound of all. In Climates, the sounds of a nut being eaten or a fag being smoked seems disproportionately loud. In Three Monkeys the sound of Servet's breathing near the beginning of the film is at roughly the same audio-level as a couple in a car some metres away. Ceylan is far from unique in this ambient infidelity. One thinks of the opening scene of L'humanit, where the central character's breathing is heard in close up though he is shown in long shot, some of the scenes in Van Sant's Elephant and Last Days, Reygadas's Battle in Heaven, and of course this type of audio use runs through Kieslowki's Three Colours Blue.
However, we aren't interested in searching out novelty here; more the ways in which Ceylan proposes a metaphysical dimension to a noirish story. Both the digital expressionism and the ambient infidelity can give the film an air of the otherworldly, while at the same time not quite allowing the film to depart too completely from a 'real word'. This is also true of the film's use of colour, which bleaches out primary colours and leaves us chiefly with blacks, yellows and off-whites. Even the dashes of red (Hacer's red dress, her new negligee) and bright whites (Ismail's shirt) fight against an onslaught of dull colours. The white shirt Ismail wears to meet his father promptly ends up puke stained; the negligee ripped by her husband. This could be no more than a 'dark' universe, a symbolic appropriation of colour where bright colours are all but banished from a malign world. If Ceylan's universe is interesting, though, it shouldn't be due to its symbolic import, but its creation of a liminal world between the realistic and the abstract, between a world of meaning and a universe of meaninglessness. Hacer, her husband and her son do seem to be trapped in a world greater than their own predicament, but does this make them pawns in a wider chess game, or creators of their own doomed destiny?
Though we've proposed the film is preoccupied with metaphysical questions; it is also interested in the immediacy of the family unit. This is a family debilitated in the distant past by their son's death while decimated in the present by the father's imprisonment, and we may well wonder whether the metaphysical and the psychological come together in the father's willingness to take responsibility for the crime. The gap of some fifteen to twenty years between the death of their other son and Eyp's decision to be punished for Servet's offence, means that Eyp's willingness to take responsibility for Servet's crime would not merely be the pragmatic decision-making of a struggling employee, but the spiritual choice of a father who still feels responsible for sins of the past. This is a relatively psychological decision that segues into the metaphysical. It allows the possibility for guilt to become higher case without completely losing its grounding in the reality of the family's existence. It is indeed that the father feels guilt towards his son's death which can help make sense of decisions which in themselves might stretch narrative plausibility. Would the entire family really need to know exactly why Eyp's going to prison; is Ismael and Hacer's silence guaranteed not only because of the money but also their own sense of responsibility towards their son's demise? Here the film would seem to generate psychological as readily as metaphysical speculation, and this returns us to the point Adair makes earlier in this piece about the dubious plausibility of much art house cinema. Undeniably he has a point, but while he expresses it chiefly as a prejudice, it may be more useful to open it up and try and extract from it an idea. When he talks of films where "a woman is slapped on the face and instantly embraces the man who has slapped her...a connoisseur holds a priceless vase up to the light then nonchalantly lets it slip from his fingers", he could be describing a scene from an Antonioni film, in the former instance, or Kurosawa's Dostoyevsky adaptation The Idiot in the latter. Such scenes often function between the psychological and the metaphysical, and the illegibility of the image comes partly from this disjunction. It might be psychological to break a useless object hot-bloodedly in a gesture of freedom against one's familial constraints; it is more than psychological to cold-bloodedly break a priceless object apparently for the same reason. The gesture seems to contain a metaphysical surplus and becomes an illegible image, a moment that requires further work than an assumption about its instant meaning.
What examples come to mind in Ceylan's film? One may be the wife's affair with Servet. As Romney's review proposes, Servet is "a callous egoist and fleshily unprepossessing to boot." There is little narratively here to suggest that she would fall for him. Certainly, he gives Hacer money, but he owes the family money anyway. This would seem less a generous gesture than reluctant obligation, and the first time she goes to see him Servet loses his temper with someone on the phone. In the wake of the call any charm he shows seems queasily hypocritical, with the film making little effort to show a character of empathy and feeling. In such an instance Ceylan appears to be pushing further into the psychological anomalies of his female characters in relation to men that he explored in Climates. In the earlier film one could see enough of the central male character's charisma, and enough of the women's insecurities, for the film to work off the psychological level. In Three Monkeys the psychological level is less grounded, and it is partly this un-grounding that Adair seems to see in many an art film where the event is psychologically under-motivated. We may ask however whether out of this under-motivation comes another question, a question that gets caught between the legible psychological reading, and the abstract metaphysical meaning. When Romney talks of the film being built on elisions, and at certain moments - like the laughter coming from Hacer's bedroom suggesting she's having an affair with Servet - we have to put 'two and two together', this is still within the realm of deductive narrative reasoning. Two and two go together; but what if we have two wrongs not quite making a right? This is not the deductive reasoning of the psychological rationale, but the metaphysical leap into the potentially irrational. If Ceylan's film is finally of interest it is that he works with the sort of deductive reasoning of the thriller while at the same time with the projective reasoning of the illegible.
If for example the film doesn't provide reason enough for us to believe in her affair with Servet, then this may seem like a psychological narrative flaw, because we cannot quite put two and two together in the way that we can in relation to the affair itself: in realising like the son that it is an affair. Ceylan builds up enough details for the affair to be unequivocal though we never see the couple in bed together. What is rather more equivocal is why Hacer would have the affair, just as there is a degree of ambiguity in why her husband will take responsibility for the hit and run accident. When Adair talks about the problem with art film motivation, it is more useful to separate the deductive psychological justification from the metaphysical surplus, and see the surplus residing in a film's ambiguous dimension and the viewer's projective one. It is no longer the problem of putting two and two together, but closer to trying to arrive at a working hypothesis that goes beyond the givens. This is where we might usefully return to a couple of our initial observations: the importance of the slap and the difference between the procedural and the moral.
The slap that is met with a hug is, as we've noted, one of the examples Adair gives of the absurdities at work in many art films, but the slap in Three Monkeys is comprehensible but hardly singular. It is the response of a son to a mother who has betrayed his father, but that doesn't mean that is all it is, and there is the idea here of letting he who is without sin cast the first stone. As we proposed earlier, when the son slaps the mother we're not in a simple cause and effect world but in a reverberative one where more than one motive attaches itself to the deed. When Romney in his review reckons that, in relation the family's dead son, it's as if "machinery of guilt seems to be already in motion before the film begins", this is both conventional back story and unconventional ellipsis. Some might insist that an elliptical back story is simply subtler than categorical back story, but can the elliptical not also give space for the illegible and the reverberative, and lead to the metaphysical questions the film appears interested in invoking and provoking? If we think of the elliptical, metonymic moment of the car crash, or the family feeling guilt in relation to a son's death that is never fully explained, this isn't Ceylan only being subtle, the sort of subtleties that would work for a procedural thriller. He is also creating the sort of spaces for an enquiry into the complexity of being, not the dead centre of psychological plausibility and explanation.
This is no more than to say that Ceylan has given us a work of digital metaphysics, a film that is not 'only' a film noir and not 'only' a study in a family belatedly coming to terms with its loss. Thus it isn't just the weather that is metaphysical in the film, but the use of ellipsis, of sound, of light and colour. It is undeniably a portentous work in that it seems to want to say more than it can actually state. If Three Monkeys proves interesting, it is partly by saying it through a digital expressionism that may help assuage one of the fears of critics; that the digital image will kill off a certain type of celluloid cinema, the sort of celluloid metaphysics Tarkovsky proposes in his book Sculpting in Time, and that was central to Bazin's ontology of the image. But as Rodowick proposes at the end of his book on the theoretical shifts from celluloid to digital: "Film is dead. Long live cinema."
© Tony McKibbin