Benoît Jacquot’s 3 Hearts looks for all the world like a brilliant upscale of the standard love triangle, recruiting stellar actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni, along with Catherine Deneuve as the benevolent mother of their provincial French family whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of lackluster tax inspector Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde). Heady melodrama looms, as Marc and Sylvie’s (Gainsbourg) unrequited love at first sight battles Marc and Sophie’s (Mastroianni) marriage. But Jacquot is a glutton for suspense. For most of the film, none of these characters is aware that they are deeply embroiled in a love triangle. Jacquot draws out the reveal with increasingly elaborate sleights of hand that beggar belief. Once the truth is out there, it seems to have been all talk and no show, with no actions coming remotely close to constituting an affair let alone a love triangle.

Marc meets Sylvie one fateful night after missing his train. They have an immediate connection but don’t consummate it with more than a kiss. Despite their reservations about spontaneous affairs, they plan to meet one week later at the Tuileries Garden but see no need to exchange phone numbers let alone names. The over-anxious Marc misses their meeting thanks to an anxiety-induced heart attack. Clearly not one to be left waiting, Sylvie departs for Minneapolis with her boyfriend almost immediately. Months later, Marc returns to the country and meets Sophie, and this time a real relationship develops. Sophie knows about Marc’s mysterious no-show, and Sylvie hears plenty about the incredible taxman Marc from her sister. He likewise knows Sophie has a sister somewhere in the US. Inconceivably, the two never see pictures of each other until after Marc and Sophie are married. And then they spend the next five years avoiding one another.

Jacquot and cowriter Julien Boivent’s setup can be forgiven for the contrivances of Marc and Sylvie’s first meeting. To be fair, it pulls off love at first sight with surprising grace. But it’s the disconnect between events and presentation that handicaps 3 Hearts. The film’s suspenseful tone encourages a reading of the events and characters through the lens of illicit relationships, when truly Marc has no secrets from Sophie—aside from how a dull tax inspector can be so appealing. At every turn, the film attempts to downplay the fact that Marc and Sylvie never did anything beyond talk and agree to meet. But their passion, if it exists, never translates into actions.

Jacquot and Boivent ramp up the tension throughout with maddening contrivances, much of which is shouldered onto the characters themselves who come out of it looking willfully delusional and downright idiotic. It’s just one frustrating thing after another: Sophie has no photos of her fiancé to show Sylvie; Marc avoids all opportunities to join in their Skype sessions; and to top it all off, Marc spends months consciously avoiding the family photos lining the staircase of their provincial home. Marc clearly has a notion that he’s in an awkward situation but is perfectly happy prolonging his ignorance. That is, until the wedding. He breaks down and ultimately makes a midnight Skype cold-call to Sylvie who, instead of greeting her sister, is met by the sight of a haggard Marc sitting silently in a dark room.

Naturally, you can’t have a love triangle unless there are three people, in some configuration, in relationships with one another. Jacquot’s approach with 3 Hearts is to create a tension-filled near-thriller around a very modern tale of romance, complete with an incongruous score heavy on the horror movie string swells. The trouble is, the story never develops into something that justifies the suspense. Rather than have the plot pivot around Sophie discovering their affair, it is ostensibly building up to the moment when Marc and Sylvie will actually have an affair, which never comes to pass. The ending, when it finally arrives, reveals everything to Sophie but with a degree of unwarranted melodrama, considering the film’s non-events.

The basic ideas on display in 3 Hearts point to a novel take on a familiar story, especially in the realm of European melodrama. A drama building suspense toward a moment that is forever delayed, 3 Hearts sullies its hopes of credibility with its compulsive prolonging of the inevitable. The machinations of this overwrought plot operate in such a way that the characters, in their constant deferment of innocuous confessions, are reduced to thoughtless cogs pantomiming suspense without the basic character complexity required to do so. Despite the atmospheric drama surrounding this love triangle, 3 Hearts is an affair that few will remember.

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