March 01, 2009

Three Monkeys

A car drives into the distance, the lights fade on the grass as it meanders away along the road. Then suddenly from ahead in the darkness you hear the tires on the road, the sound of a swerving vehicle and then silence and a hunched figure lying in the middle of the road. Another car draws up, the driver gets out to check the hunched figure is still alive, but they decide the figure is dead, and take the number of the previous car to the police. In the shadows a middle aged man hides- from the consequence of his driving. Three Monkey's begins in suspense and mystery- it begins with an act that we cannot see on a rural road in the middle of the night- it begins in darkness and it ends in the night as well. The issue is further clouded as the movie goes on: Servet the old man persuades his driver, resigned it seems to his fate, Eyup to take the blame for the accident and to accept the prison sentence, in return Servet pays him for his silence. The film concerns the working out of this relationship, as Eyup's son goes steadily off the rails, Eyup's wife is seduced by Servet and becomes a fallen woman (symbolised by an erotic negligee) and Eyup himself returns to chaos. The story is convoluted but its essential point is about the consequences of crime.

My notes on the film from the British Film Institute portray it as a film noir- part of a long and distinguished genre that emerged in the aftermath of World War II in the United States but was taken up by filmmakers from France to Finland because it portrayed life in all its deep and ambiguous greys. Three Monkeys has elements of noir within it- none of the characters are unambiguously 'good' or 'evil'. Servet is perhaps the most villainish- but even he has a base charm. Rather than that the film concentrates on the ambiguity of action: to a greater or lesser extent the film is an attempt to define the human social community not in terms of its economic utility but in terms of its moral utility, it allows us to share, trade and spread guilt. Servet obviously is trading guilt with his driver- exchanging it for a gold coin or two. But there are other exchanges going on here: Sayyid the driver's son refuses to tell his father about his mother's infidelity, truth here emerges painfully later. Eyup himself is tortured by the memory of his own other dead son- an image that is shared by his entire family. Hacer, his wife, trades her guilt with her son for her agreement in his plans to buy a car. Guilt is a commodity- and explanation is the term of the market on which it is traded.

The trade of guilt creates consequences that is what Three Monkeys is really about. It is about the lingering effect of those trades on those that make them- the lingering effect of the explanations upon the explainers. In a sense therefore it is the analysis of a gap- the gap between the moment of explanation and the moment when the truth is revealed. In a sharp way the film does allow the truth to out- or rather the guilt worms its way into the lives of characters, distorts, deforms and eventually destroys their lives. The gap between the moment when the villain (us all) thinks he has got away with it, whatever that may be, and the moment in which he has to atone for it is the gap that the film is interested in. The mechanism of atonement is the film implies, the complicated resentments and relationships that any exchange of guilt produces: ultimately an exchange of guilt involves a confession, a confession that creates its own relationship and its own dynamic. That dynamic is what drives the plot.

That dynamic is a psychological process- this film is filmed in such a way as to make you aware of that process, the camera follows the character. It is the tight to the head and the face of every single person- you can see the beads of sweat rolling off the forehead of Sayyid and through the beard of his father. Sometimes the camera portrays the indistinct: as Sayyid vomits on a train station, the other passengers become shapes rather than facts, the walls of the appartment close in every so often emphasizing the erotic poverty of Hacer's life. The grand vistas- mostly of the sea- are used to emphasize the massive rolling guilt that the characters feel or to minimise their pathetic vista on the world. This is a harsh film- and though it is filmed languidly with every moment seen as a still (sometimes I wondered impudently whether human beings actually cross rooms so slowly, with such deliberation!)- it is a bleak languor, a view of the world that sees the reality of human guilt, both as something that acquires retribution, as something that is universal and something whose transfer lies at the root of our social activity.

Vengeance is ours and we do repay- but all of us are both victims and perpetrators- and that process of repayment is what in one context we call justice, what Three Monkeys implies is that in another context it is what we call life.