418) Three Monkeys (2008) Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Date Released May 2009 Date Seen: November 27, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
In Three Monkeys, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's tendency to pull back with his omniscient camera is paradoxically his way of not only humanizing but also of mystifying his characters. Their emotions are conveyed almost entirely through body language, a spare approach that reaps some unforgettable moments of emotional pathos (the film's ensemble cast also can't be undersold; really one of the best in a contemporary film I've seen this year).
In that way, Ceylan pre-emptively prevents Three Monkeys from feeling too broad in its scope, as its plot has all the makings of an operatic melodrama--a rich man's driver goes to prison for his employer in exchange for a big payoff only to suspect his boss is sleeping with his wife while his son is tormented by...something. Thanks to Ceylan's guarded use of close-ups, we only get so close to the characters and when we, the camera, are allowed to be near them, it's often devastating.
Ceylan's instinct can however also be problematic because it leads to scenes where he pulls us back because of his emotional allegiance with his wracked characters. An emotional crux of the film, filmed from a distance on a heath by the sea, like a Mediterannean version of Wuthering Heights, is filmed from afar, as is the film's central collision and its frigid last shot. Aesthetically, they work beautifully but emotionally, they don't pay off for anyone but Ceylan, as if delving into the mysteries of his characters was only so necessary. One of the family's ghosts obliquely surfaces twice but is never explained, making one wonder why that intimation of prior trauma is necessary in the first place. Even then, in the film's only vestigial subplot, it feels like we're being coaxed so far only to be told we need to respect the characters' personal space. I can't recall a time when a filmmaker has so coquettishly encouraged viewers to be voyeurs only to push them away when it matters most.