Paul Haggis examines his own storytelling methods in “Third Person,” an ambitious puzzle-movie in which couples in three interlocking stories reveal different facets of a single psyche — namely, the author’s. With segments set in Paris, Rome and New York, this tony contempo romance serves as a “Crash” course in complex modern relationships, focusing primarily on issues of guilt and trust as they relate to love. Though virtually every twist on this emotional roller coaster feels preordained by its architect, the director leaves certain mysteries for the audience to interpret, making for a more open-ended and mature work all around. It’s hearty fare by arthouse standards, and should perform well with thinking auds the world over, boosted by a starry cast.
As the character most like Haggis — an Oscar winner somewhat haunted by the expectation that his future work can surpass “Crash” in exposing sensitive truths about human nature — Liam Neeson plays a Pulitzer-winning novelist struggling to write a sincere, self-conscious work about Love (with a capital “L”). But there’s a risk in mistaking the deeply personal nature of this work as autobiographical. As with any work of fiction, all of the characters are facets of the writer’s own experience, and Haggis has clearly made an effort to lay bare his soul for this unusual project.
Neeson’s Michael is holed up in a Paris hotel working on his manuscript when his young lover (Olivia Wilde) arrives. The less said about their relationship, the better, as the surprises begin from the moment she knocks on his door. Suffice to say they practice a form of purely intellectual S&M, whereby each tortures the other behind the backs of their respective lovers. In Michael’s case, his enormously understanding wife back in the States is played by Kim Basinger.
Everyone around Michael must be careful with their words, not only because the middle-aged fool is a romantic (“You love love,” Basinger diagnoses), but because anything he observes is liable to find its way into his novel: a scrap of paper left behind by the maid, a suspicious stranger lingering outside his hotel, a confidential admission spoken between lovers. His imagination has a way of turning such seeds into full-blown stories, which subsequently have a tendency to blur with the reality of his own experience.
In order to understand Love from other perspectives, Haggis provides two other fully fleshed-out dramas in far-removed corners of the world. In Rome, a shady corporate thief (Adrien Brody) plans to return to the U.S. with stolen fashion designs when he meets a beautiful gypsy woman (Moran Atias, a terrific actress whose role in Starz’s “Crash” series took centerstage after one season), and the subsequent journey their relationship takes serves as a metaphor for the leaps of faith required when two complete strangers connect. Meanwhile, in New York, a failed soap star (Mila Kunis) consults with a skeptical attorney (Maria Bello) to win back child-visitation rights from her ex-husband (James Franco), whose trust issues run deeper than the fact she endangered their son’s life.
Although the three threads primarily concern the tricky emotions that attract and repel consenting adults, as the film’s full tapestry begins to take shape, another theme — that of love between parents and their children — emerges. “Watch me,” a child whispers over the opening shot of the movie, and those words continue to echo throughout, a ghostly reminder of an incident never shown, but revealed through the reactions of the entire ensemble late in the film.
One could look at “Third Person” as a kind of game, spending the entire 136-minute running time trying to second-guess how these three very different relationships relate to one another. Or one could view it as a Rorschach test, reading between the lines for a glimpse into Haggis’ psyche. The title invites various other interpretations as well. Each of the film’s couples is impacted at some point by an outsider, or third person, while at the fundamental level of the text itself, Michael never writes in the first person, but relies on expressions like “he thought this” to self-examine. Certainly, each of those readings are valid, though the most rewarding way to process the film is to make it personal: by projecting one’s own experience onto the characters and situations Haggis provides.
Given its uniquely self-aware structure, the pic will surely confound some and divide others. In conceptual terms, “Third Person” may as well be “The Quadruple Life of Veronique”: a deep dive into a territory filmmakers too often wish to simplify. Two-hour movies seldom have time to let goal-oriented characters paradoxically thwart their own intentions. Here, Kunis’ frazzled mother undermines herself at every stage. But her character can cry on cue, which may or may not be a factor in her climactic scene.
Honesty, sincerity and trust all serve as recurring themes in the film, as does the stated belief that “women have the incredible gift of being able to deny any reality” — and yet, whether a substitute for or tool to understand life, the film springs from a male imagination, a sex equally prone to rationalizing its behavior. Such self-consciousness isn’t lost on Haggis, whose take on the Charlie Kaufman-esque meta-movie forgoes sardonic detachment in favor of the far riskier gambit: sincere emotion. It’s a bold approach, far easier to ridicule, but also much more open to identification, making this an extremely rich text to interpret, mirrored musically by Dario Marinelli’s piano-strong score.
As a writer, Haggis is a master of specificity, conjuring clearly defined characters and then working with actors to bring out the most of emotionally charged moments. And yet, he carries over some bad habits from “Crash” that detractors will find frustrating, both overstating his themes and troweling on too much information about the ensemble’s backstories early on, essentially trapping characters who might have bloomed into well-rounded human beings within their (or his own) narrow-mindedness. As a consequence, some of the personalities — especially Brody’s, caught up in a variation on the classic Spanish Prisoner con — come across curiously flat in a film that, formally speaking, is the director’s most robust to date.