Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sydney Film Festival 2009: Three Monkeys

The beacon of Sydney’s film-life is back in its 56th year. Until its arrival, it was difficult to imagine how film-starved this city has become. Devoid of proper cinematheques and with the local art house theatres playing ‘Angels and Demons’, Sydney can not even remotely be called a film-friendly city.
Alas, this year’s festival is a lot leaner, slimmer and, unfortunately thinner… Unlike the stupendously overloaded 2007 edition, the 56th outing of the festival offers a collection of gems that barely make a mark on the radar.
I found it somewhat ironic that the festival’s promotional poster features a nerdy looking guy and a tired-looking dog sitting in an armchair in what supposedly means to a TV set. The logo? ‘Don’t try this at home’. ‘… or you might go to sleep’ should’ve been the punchline.
No no no. I’m not deprecating the standard festival fare that is featured here. It’s just, even I had to admit half-heartedly, there were going to be very few surprises this year. Yet, as I booked my twelve sessions (the only ones I could master up some enthusiasm), I was hoping for a miracle.

THREE MONKEYS: Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Before I begin the review of the following film, I’m going to indulge in a little digression.
It’s the 2009 Cannes film festival. The Jury has convened to make their final decision. Who’s going to get a bite of the small prize pool? While the only prize that really counts at Cannes is Palm d’Or, it’s better to go away with at least a small paper certificate than without anything. It is an unusually good competition this time around, which some commentators had already dubbed ‘the battle of the auteurs’. The Palme d’Or was probably a foregone conclusion with Hupert as the president and Haneke presenting his strongest film in years (so we hear). The rest of the prizes would have proven difficult to distribute considering the exceptional standard of most of the films. One prize that is almost as equally coveted is the best-director gong. Various jury members present their choices ‘Almodovar. Campion. How about Von Trier? No, that would be too much for him. Audriad has made an amazing film. Isn’t it time one of the greatest French filmmakers received a prize here – Alain Resnais. Yes, that would be perfect, he’s at the death’s door and he’s made such a beautiful film…’ But from a corner comes a quiet but dignified voice “I think the prize should go to Brilliante Mendoza…” The voice belongs to Nuri Bilge Ceylan – a Cannes darling who was the lucky recipient of the said award in 2008. The jury stares at Nuri in stupefication (except Isabelle Hupert, whose astonishing face NEVER changes its expression). “Yes… I think he made an amazing film… it’s a really challenging and enigmatic movie with a unique style”. “But you can’t see anything in it” pitch in a few of the members. “Well… it is a very dark film, so the director has found the appropriate treatment for it”… “But the material… it’s like a B-grade Hollywood thriller dressed up as a snuff move”. “… it’s a brilliant treatment of a B-movie. Just like my film from last year, for which I won the best director prize”. Since nobody in the room had seen Nuri’s film and were too ashamed to admit it, the jury unanimously decided to give the prize to Mendoza’s film – the worst film in the history of Cannes according to the press.
This is of course a big load of conjecture and I can not confirm Ceylan’s attitude to Mendoza’s film (which I haven’t seen). Yet I couldn’t help but think about it while watching the latest film in the Turkish director’s cannon – ‘Three Monkeys’, although I much prefer the sound of its Turkish title , pronounced ‘Uch Meymoun’.
The story tastes like badly aged wine. An influential politician, just before the elections, runs over a pedestrian on a dark, isolated road. His plate number is recorded by another driver and in desperation, the politician seeks the help of his driver, Eyup. He asks Eyup to take his place and give himself up to the police. He’d only have to sit it out for a year and upon release will receive a large sum of money for services provided. Eyup, considering the odds, takes the offer. His wife and son are strangely unmoved about the arrangement. The beautiful Hacer goes on about her routine as always, fretting over her handsome, adolescent son Ismail, who has failed his school exams and prefers to loiter about. Ismail is also bored and being stuck in a small coastal town does not help. Soon he’s pressuring his mother to ask the politician for an advance so he could get a car. The mother reluctantly complies, but when she meets the man decides to get something for herself too. No, not money. Just a good lay. In the tradition of those great Hollywood noirs, the plot thickens into a black pool of blood, but slow enough that you could say ‘Preminger, Hitchcock, Visconti, Chandler and Tarkovsky’ before the next scene comes.
Mixing Tarkovsky and Chandler (or most likely Cain - the references are too generalised here) is a great idea on paper and Ceylan makes a very strong attempt to bring this gimmick to life. Yet, essentially the two aesthetics are not just incompatible, they are mutually exclusive. Chandler’s characters inhabit a universe that is driven by dialogue, wordplay and language. You could probably film an entire Chandler film in a dark closet and still get a pretty good picture. Tarkovsky on the other hand requires not so much dialogue as poetry – to accompany the powerful images he conjures up. The free associative way that Tarkovsky constructs his films, full of ellipsis’s, off-screen dialogue and negative spaces, is diametrically opposed to Chandler’s focus on human psychology and semantics. So Ceylan’s film never really knows where it wants to be. It is a very reluctant thriller. The mechanical plot clicks its way through an almost too pat a conclusion. But it is not really the airport novel plot that is at fault here. Trashy material has made the basis of many a good film – just look at any Godard adaptation. What is problematic however is Ceylan’s off-handed, simplistic and at times offensively stereotypical treatment of his characters. At times I thought I was watching a really corny 70s Turkish melodrama, which happened to be photographed by Christopher Doyle. None, and I mean none of the main characters come remotely close to being complex. Complexity is suggested by the loaded imagery, but immediately dissipates when the characters so much as open their mouths or make a predictable plot movement. They are driven by the customary characteristics that define a typically ‘Eastern’ patriarchal unit. The one to suffer most is of course the woman. Not only is she presented to be morally dubious, but is also a weak creature in thrall of the man. It is possible that Ceylan is making a non-too subtle critique on the way men abuse the women in their lives. But I don’t buy it. There’s just a way that Ceylan photographs Hacer, with her twisted mouth and a desperate look in her eyes that suggests some kind of primal instability – a madness that is just brimming under the surface of her finely etched features.
Ceylan is obviously much more concerned with the way the light falls on the actors, the furniture and the landscape, than he is with philosophical musings on guilt and redemption (themes that are central to his work). Had he attempted to even slightly move away from the formulaic narrative, he might have achieved something resembling the iconographic grandeur of Tarkovsky or Antonioni for that matter. For Ceylan has a truly astounding eye: his images are mercilessly detailed and at times overpoweringly monumental (take for example the brilliant last shot). Looking back at his previous film, ‘Climates’ I understand why I enjoyed it so much. By taking out the narrative out of the equation, Ceylan had given his images the possibility to tell thousands of stories instead of just one. His new film on the other hand reveals only one story – that of the director’s very significant shortcomings.