The quiet meet-cute that opens Benoît Jacquot’s 3 Hearts is so refreshingly convincing and gracefully depicted by way of the director’s slyly abstracted visual rhythm that it’s easy to miss the gloomy underpinnings of the encounter. Jacquout’s camera roams down the quiet streets, and he cuts the film to accentuate the sense of Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being alone in this small, sparsely populated town, as if it were a stage that exists solely for their coming together. The score, however, curiously groans menacingly when he misses his train out of town—the incident that allows him to bum a cigarette off of Sylvie, co-owner of a small, lucrative antique gallery. It’s what you might call “love at first sight,” but the director routinely refuses to sentimentalize such feelings as mere fate. Instead, this lively, alluring drama allows the director to explore the darker implications of romantic desire, both the sudden sort and the kind that’s built up over time.
Sylvie and Marc don’t consummate these immediate feelings that night, but make plans to meet at a specific time and place in Paris a few days from then, a meeting that he doesn’t make due to his literally weak heart. Here, Jacquot references An Affair to Remember, Leo McCarey’s melodrama in which a pair of lovers played by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr must wait years and weather incessant uncertainty to finally reunite. Jacquot complicates this scenario by juxtaposing the violent, urgent desire Sylvie and Marc share with the quiet, loving relationship Marc unknowingly starts with her sister and business partner, Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), a fact that hits Marc around the time he proposes to Sophie.
Jacquot depicts this love triangle as an ever-shifting struggle between being safe and preserving life or embracing the inevitability of death and taking chances. It’s to the performers’ credit that this push and pull feels consistently tense, emotionally lacerating, and messy, and never comes off as strictly philosophical. Marc and Sylvie are both clearly of the latter opinion, but Sophie and, to a lesser extent, her mother (Catherine Deneuve) are of the former, and these perspectives inextricably influence one another. Jacquot’s fleet pacing underlines how quickly these emotions mutate or augment, and how spritely allegiances change. Thanks to the consistently eloquent and moving cast, the material never feels overworked, with the director letting these performers’ inspired gestures and glances play out through fluid long takes or almost percussive short ones. Toward the end of the movie, the director films Sylvie’s violent rejection of her boyfriend and her immediately returning need for him in one shot, seeing her fear of a passionless life clash with her crippling loneliness.
Jacquot is a sly master of symbols, ones that seem simple, but underline major, complex human itches, both physical and philosophical. Such as Marc’s smoking, which dies down after he misses meeting Sylvie and his doctor explicitly warns him not to light up, as it will exasperate his already unreliable heart. Sure enough, as Sylvie re-enters his life, he picks up the habit again, and acts increasingly reckless, from indulging a quickie with her and planning a getaway with her. By the end of the film, Marc is a father, but also a deeply confused romantic, as the narrative itself is built on opposing yet strangely similar perspectives on whether romance is all death-defying passions or loyalty, kindness, perseverance, and warmth.
It’s the wilder side, the unkempt side of desire that Jacquot clearly empathizes with, but he never evades how these feelings corrupt life without cause and concern. Late into the film, a politician all but admits his corruption and tax evasion to Marc, and gets incensed when Marc denies having similar urges. Jacquot never loses sight of the primordial compulsions that drive feelings and expressions of great love and beauty, and knowledge of these cravings, these weaknesses, underlines even the sweetest exchanges in 3 Hearts.