Heart Trouble: Benoit Jacquot’s ‘3 Hearts’ presents a most unusual romantic triangle

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We all know about love. We just don’t know how to photograph it, that’s all.

So it’s good to report that director Benoît Jacquot is making great headway in this area in 3 Hearts, which kicked off the 20th annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series, co-sponsored by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films, and opens in New York on March 13 via Cohen Media Group.

In the gossamer script Jacquot concocted with Julien Boivent, those hearts belong to two bourgeois sisters who run an antiques shop in the French provinces, Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), and the tax inspector from Paris who accidentally falls in love with both of them, Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde).

The operative word here is “accidentally,” and Jacquot works overtime to plug up plot-holes and leaks in logic to make that happen. Coincidence is crucial here.

“I guess what I try to do is show something that is not generally shown,” the director replies when asked to characterize his films. “I use gestures, things that we don’t normally see—things that are more emotional, physical, psychological—things that are usually part of our everyday lives but generally that we avoid showing.”

The film, fragile and uncharted as life, is built on minutiae that you might not think scriptable. It seems Marc misses the last train out of Valence by a split-second. The door slams right in his face, and he must spend the night in a strange, new town. While refueling with mineral water at a nearby café, he spots a woman buying a pack of Marlboro Lights. Lighting up like a Christmas tree, he decides to pursue her.

Just getting through the opening round of small talk is a palm-sweater. Finally, for some kind of narrative direction, he asks her to help him find a hotel, then another one—all of this punctuated by awkward asides and remarks—until he opts for fresh air, and the two of them walk the night away, just talking and talking. In all that mindless talk, they never exchange names or numbers, but they do vow to meet later in the week in Paris. Like Cary Grant suggesting the Empire State Building, Marc suggests the Eiffel Tower, then changes that to a less touristy locale. It doesn’t matter. We all know he won’t make it. Fate this time takes the form of a heart attack.

“When I use the word heart in the title,” says Jacquot, “I mean it in both senses of the word. On one hand, you have the heart that is the physical heart, the biological heart, the actual organ that eventually becomes the cause of a medical situation. On the other hand, you have the heart that represents the sentimental, the poetic.”

The fallout of the unrealized rendezvous is familiar. Sylvie returns to the boyfriend she quickly dumped for Marc, marries him and moves to Minneapolis. Her departure leaves the antiques-shop books in a shambles, and Sophie needs to bring in a taxman for an audit. Love blossoms, then a marriage proposal. Sylvie returns to France just in time for her sister’s wedding to Marc. The situation is as awkward as the small talk that began it.

Jacquot’s rigid stranglehold on the plot means, in his view, that he is playing by the rules of melodrama: The end (heightened emotions) is more important than the means (dispelling belief). “Melodrama is often the term that is used in cinema to describe what is, in effect, a sentimental tragedy,” he contends. “As Hollywood defines it, it’s a romantic story that ends badly. My film meets those criteria.

“What I really tried to do in this film is to make what you might call a sentimental suspenser where you have the love story, but it’s told as if it were a suspense film.”

Jacquot, who started his career 40 years ago with novelist-turned-filmmaker Marguerite Duras, first as her assistant and then as an actor, has certainly been true to his mentor in his fashion. The film is chock-full of Durasisms like love at first sight, heart-over-head priorities, self-destructive life moves, and overriding passion.

Technology is making it harder to be myopically romantic. Not only is Marc oblivious to the family pictures of Sylvie around Sophie’s house—the girls are devoted to each other—he stays just out of camera range when they have their little Skype chats. So, when their worlds collide at the wedding, there is considerable internal combustion.

In moments of superbly captured intimacy, the eyes have it. There is a scene at the dinner table where the groom-to-be and bridesmaid-to-be, still sharing their guilty secret, struggle to make eye contact without tipping their hand. “For me, I want it to be that way, too,” says the director. “If I’m right there and I have the actress in front of me, and I’m telling her, ‘Avoid looking at him.’ And then at that moment you want their eyes to lock, I want to feel it happened at that moment, too. Then it’s a success.”

The eyes are also key in a close-up when love first flickers as the couple share cigarettes. “If Charlotte Gainsbourg didn’t have those eyes that looked the way they did at the moment she lit his cigarette, the scene would totally not have worked.

“One thing I always hope to succeed in doing is to give you the sense that something that has been imagined is actually happening at the moment that you see it. You feel that these actors are not acting. You don’t have a sense this was something that was thought through, that was imagined, that was written, that was filmed. I want you to feel you’re watching people in the moment these very things are happening.

“I think that the real key factor is in the choice of actors. You really have to be able to choose the actors who are going to be able to do this. Otherwise, it won’t work.”

Poelvoorde, the Belgian actor best known for his comedic performances, wasn’t Jacquot’s first choice and would seem to be, on the surface of it, an odd choice.

“I’ve known him for a long time and, during that time, we’ve often spoken about making a film together,” the director recalls. “At first, I toyed with the idea of making a comedy with him, but he didn’t want to make a comedy, What he wanted from me was to provide him with a dramatic role that would really show the other side of his character—something that’s very inherent in his nature, this dramatic side of him. To make this role as dramatic as possible is what I tried to do for him. It was something that really came from within him, and it’s not in his other films.”

The remaining two sides of the film’s central triangle are played by the star-crossed results of past film pairings: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s parents co-starred in 1969’s Slogan (English actress Jane Birkin and French singer Serge Gainsbourg). Chiara’s did It Only Happens to Others (Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni).

Deneuve is on hand for this film, playing the sisters’ mom and wearing attractively (but, of course!) the frown of a mother who has every right to worry.

“I tried to do all the scenes with Catherine Deneuve together in the same location. In the three weeks that we shot with her, it all takes place in the house which is supposed to be her house in the film but which she was actually living in during the shooting. In the time while she was there, she was not only living there, she was actively involved in creating the menus. There were a lot of scenes of them eating, and she was doing the cooking. She was welcoming us almost as if she was the hostess welcoming us into her own home. At a certain point, there was no difference between what was being filmed and what was taking place when we weren’t.”

Deneuve eats and acts elegantly at the same time—a characteristic on which she hasn’t cornered the market, Jacquot feels. “I don’t know the relationship French actors and actresses have with food, but I think many of them are good at doing that.”

He believes his film begins and ends in a kind of dream state. “All romantic encounters of a love-at-first-sight nature have a magical feeling that is experienced as they are happening.It seems part of a dream world, in contrast to the reality that’s actually being lived.”

And do the lovers do the right thing in reaching (however faux) a happy ending? Jacquot’s eyes twinkle. “My personal opinion,” he happily advances, “is that nobody ever does the things that they are supposed to do. Life’s interesting, and that’s why there are films, that’s why there are songs, that’s why there are novels.”