Please don't ask me to pronounce his name, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan is quietly becoming a major force in European cinema. The Turkish writer-director's previous couple of movies, Distant (2002) and Climates (2006), gave notice of a sombre, ruminative approach to storytelling – "slow" would be the bald word – in which the camera might linger on a face for a seeming eternity and still not disclose exactly what's going on behind the person's gaze. There are shades of Antonioni and Tarkovsky in the concentration of mood, though Ceylan is neither as chilly as the one nor as remorseless as the other. He tends to give his troubled characters a chance, if not of redemption, then of stepping back from the abyss to which they have been hesitantly drawn. That might not seem much reward, but his intense face-gazing does become extraordinarily hypnotic.
His latest, Three Monkeys, could be reduced to a simple moral – never do a dodgy politician a favour – though its layering of ironies and wrong turnings render it more subtly disturbing than that précis might suggest. The set-up has an inky shimmer of noir about it. An election candidate, Servet (Ercan Kesal), asks his driver Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) to take the rap for a hit-and-run; in return for doing nine months in prison Eyup will receive a cash payment to help out his family. During his incarceration, his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) becomes so concerned about their teenage son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) – he's fallen into bad company – that she goes to Servet to seek an advance on the money owed. The dangers of getting into bed with a politician take on a literal meaning when Servet pays a call on Hacer one afternoon.
Ceylan chronicles this betrayal and its discovery by the son with startling finesse. All the details add up, but so beguilingly that at first you hardly notice. The sudden fit of vomiting that causes Ismail to return home early, the noisy rattle of trains that muffles his entrance into the family flat, the tell-tale twitter of the pet canary in its cage: everything points to the calamitous adultery, yet the camera remains coolly outside her bedroom door. The film inhabits a world of implication, of meanings half-glimpsed, and the mood darkens: will Eyup, released from jail, realise that he's been cuckolded? Ceylan shapes the story ominously, yet he's not deaf to its comedy. A mobile phone's ringtone sings out a love ballad whose plaintive vocal provides an inadvertent commentary on what its owner is feeling but not saying. Sound is vitally important to this film-maker, who uses ambient noise (a train, a ship's foghorn, a man breathing heavily through his nose) to situate us exactly in the moment.
More than sound, however, the film expresses itself in the fluctuating contours of the human face. Yavuz Bingol as Eyup doesn't say much, but he doesn't need to because his saturnine brow and dark, lugubrious eyes are eloquent in themselves. (They say: "I'm being taken for a fool.") Hatice Aslan, as the film's centre, uses her face as a mask, lest her husband and son were suddenly to understand how much she has hidden, and for how long. Oddly, in the one scene where she utterly breaks down, the camera observes from a discreet distance, as though from pity at her plight. It's the kind of unexpected manoeuvre that, paradoxically, one has come to expect from this director – one who understands that, however hard we stare, we don't know the half about one another.