Turkish delight

Nuri Bilge Ceylan takes on film noir - and makes it very much his own

<strong>Three Monkeys (15)<

While genres such as the western and the musical have suffered fluctuating fortunes, film noir has demonstrated staying power while remaining fresh, or as fresh as any genre hung up on moral and corporeal decay could be. The values (or lack thereof) that were there at its inception in the 1940s have held fast, not to mention the visual style, which incorporates cramped, imprisoning spaces, chiaroscuro lighting and anything else that would provoke mass hara-kiri on the set of Grand Designs.

Roman Polanski brought plushness to the genre in his perfect 1974 noir, Chinatown. In the 1980s, lashing of unnecessarily explicit sex were brought to the table - to the kitchen table, that is, in the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson collaborated on something hotter than casserole. The 1990s were a more fruitful period, with the sassy work of John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), and David Lynch's mind-bending Lost Highway. Like those films, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys is both an analysis of noir and an expedition into the depths of its existentialist horror.

It begins with a late-night hit-and-run accident in which a pedestrian is killed. At the wheel is an eminent Turkish politician, Servet (Ercan Kesal), who persuades his lowly driver, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol), to take the rap and serve the necessary prison time in exchange for a lump sum at the end. While Eyüp is in jail, his wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan), becomes concerned for their teenage son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), whose evenings out on the town tend to end with him nursing a black eye and dripping blood on the living-room floor.

Ismail comes up with a business idea for which he needs an advance on his father's pay-off, and Hacer agrees to ask Servet. Downhearted at having lost a recent election, Servet nevertheless assures her: "Politics for me is all about giving, not taking." Hacer quickly realizes exactly what Servet wants to give her, and it isn't parliamentary representation. Right there, in the film's opening movements, you have the essential components of a heady noir: death, money and sex.

The picture has some fun with our expectations of genre clichés, ticking off shots of fans and Venetian blinds (though not stiletto heels, which are perhaps too uncool even for irony). Ceylan boldly and unfashionably does without a score, relying instead on the clamour of thunderstorms and rattling trains, just as Hitchcock chose squawking rather than music in The Birds. But there is a nice joke on the use of song as a commentary on character; whereas Gilda had Rita Hayworth slinking her way through "Put the Blame on Mame", Three Monkeys features Hacer's persistent ringtone, the lyrics of which ("I hope despair is always at your door.I hope you choke on your passion") are overstated to the point of parody.

At every turn, Ceylan feeds noir through his own wry sensibility. Though he shot the picture on zinging HD, its colour scheme strays only occasionally from the sort of mouldy greys and greens found in Dulux's tombstone range. And while Ceylan evokes the claustrophobia essential to any film noir, he does so in an unusual way, within the panoramic compositions familiar from his photographic work (which is on show at London's BFI Southbank until 22 March). Through these vast, deep-focus images we can see precisely how trapped Eyüp's family really is: a road and a railway track run outside their apartment block, which looks out onto the ocean. Everyone is going places except them.

On one level, the picture represents a departure for Ceylan, whose lyrical films Uzak and Climates were not noticeably concerned with plot. Film noir, of course, is pretty much all plot, and he handles this demand by cramming all the action into the first half, then watching intently as the characters are undone by their deeds in the second. In his quest for the ultimate penetrating close-up, he is working very much in the tradition of Dreyer, Bergman and Pasolini; this technique of cinematic portraiture creates an intriguing tension with the strict rules of genre (which he bends but never breaks). The result is something like a dream marriage. It's all noir, but it's all unmistakably Ceylan too.

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Documentary on that word, from the makers of The Aristocrats.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression