More than 40 years ago, at the outset of his filmmaking career, Benoit Jacquot worked as an assistant director to the great French novelist and helmer Marguerite Duras, and now, with “Three Hearts,” he has made a film that feels more indebted to her romantic values than anything else in his oeuvre. Here, beneath the surface of a cool, contempo love triangle involving a Parisian man (Benoit Poelvoorde) and a pair of provincial French sisters (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni), are all the values Duras held dear: love at first sight, spontaneous tears, all-consuming desire and impossible, self-destructive decisions.
The difference — since it’s entirely possible that the Duras connection never crossed Jacquot’s mind — is that the helmer can’t help but turn these archetypes into characters. The passion remains, but the underlying poetry has been traded in for something more tangible, brought down to earth so that audiences might relate. Telling such a direct, contempo story from a man’s p.o.v. seems of tantamount importance to Jacquot, as if to balance a streak of femme-focused period pieces in recent years — a run culminating with his revival of “La Traviata,” which will be onstage at Paris’ Opera Bastille when this film opens Sept. 17 in France. Pic should do solid business in Europe, where the participation of Catherine Deneuve as the sibs’ mom rounds out a film-royalty trifecta among the pic’s female cast.
Of the three hearts in play, the man’s seems most at risk. A workaholic out of place in a country where employees recently demanded that they be allowed to turn off their cell phones after hours, Poelvoorde’s over-stressed tax officer appears to be constantly on the brink of a heart attack — a chest-tightening, cold-sweat-inducing feeling that extends to the audience, courtesy of Bruno Coulais’ unusual score (by meller-music standards, at least), which mixes that ominous foghorn sound so popular since “Inception” with more traditionally swoony piano-and-strings motifs.
And so, accompanied by music that suggests the incident is anything but ordinary — possibly even the Most Important Moment of His Life — Jacquot’s hero misses his train on a business trip outside Paris. Stepping back out into the quiet city (of Valence, south of Lyon), he makes good by chatting up a sullen-looking woman (Gainsbourg) wandering the streets alone at night. It is his birthday, as good a night as any to fall in love, and the two strangers kiss and decide to reunite a few days later at the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris.
At this point, the pair may as well be “a man” and “a woman” — romantic abstractions, a la Duras — but as played by these two committed actors, they rapidly come to seem like real people. Even so, American auds may have trouble accepting how quickly Sophie (as she is called) seems willing to walk out on her longtime b.f. in order to be with the somewhat pathetic Marc.
Too bad, then, that a silly misunderstanding at Marc’s office, which escalates into a rather serious anxiety attack, stands in the way of their agreed-upon meeting, frustrating the fate that they — and Jacquot — had so hastily imagined for themselves. (Here’s one situation that an after-work cell phone might have easily solved.) It’s not quite “An Affair to Remember”-level sad, mainly because Jacquot hasn’t given us ample time to fall for the couple, though he is looking to elicit the same level of emotional response of which classic Hollywood was capable. John Stahl’s “Back Street” is the more direct model here for such what-might-have-beens, right down to the final scene, in which the tragedy literally becomes too great for one heart to bear.
After the missed appointment, Sophie goes back to her partner, defeatedly agreeing to move to Minneapolis with him. Of all the moments in a film saturated with regret and compromise, the most powerful is easily the one in which Sophie breaks the news to her sister, Sylvie (Mastroianni), who cannot hold back the tears, while Deneuve stoically looks on. The sisters love one another more than anyone in the world. But the prospect of being separated is only part of what makes Sophie’s decision to leave so unbearable to Sylvie, who understands that her sister is sentencing herself to a life without love.
Perhaps this sacrifice is what compels Sophie to leave her husband so abruptly after meeting Marc, breaking the news in the middle of an action movie — a nice touch, amid all the tire screeches and explosions. But what is it that these women see in Marc? They each meet him under completely separate circumstances, and he’s like a different man with each of them: passionate with Sophie, sensitive to Sylvie. The entire scenario, contrived to within an inch of its life, takes Poelvoorde’s appeal for granted. Marc’s anxiety becomes our own once he realizes what he’s done, though Jacquot makes it much more compelling to watch his characters fall in love than it is to see them writhe and twist amid its complications.