3 is a smidgeon film. Take a smidgeon of scientific/ethical discussion, throw in a pinch of dance/poetry/dream sequences, tie the whole thing up with split-screen montages and you no longer just have a film about a love triangle, but a Godardian objet d’art. Or at least that seems to be the idea behind Tom Tykwer’s ambitious latest, but actually all the intellectual and aesthetic tangents the director throws at us play as just that—tangents—to what is actually a slightly enervated drama of not-so-complicated romantic geometry. That the film is frequently ravishing in its carefully honed visual construction (it often seems as if it’s unfolding in a slightly futuristic alternate world) makes the drama go down easy, but for all its complicating intrusions, 3 can’t help but register as somewhat less than the sum of its disparate parts.
During the film’s first pre-title split-screen montage, in one of the many boxes that seem to multiply on the screen, introducing us to characters we don’t yet know, Hanna (Sophie Rois) turns to her longtime boyfriend, Simon (Sebastian Schipper), at a movie theater and complains of her inability to follow the narrative of the film they’re watching. Shortly thereafter, while attending a conference on stem cell research, Hanna, who hosts a “cultural” television program, finds her attention divided between the presenter, Adam (Devid Striesow), and out-of-nowhere thoughts of Jeff Koons’s most sexually explicit work, leading her to muse, in voiceover, on the difficulty of bringing full concentration to more than one item at a time.
Such an information-overload, divided-attention approach to the cinema has been associated with Tykwer since his flashy breakthrough Run, Lola, Run, and in the early sequences of 3, the director seems to be not only taking this strategy to new levels of abstraction (it becomes nearly impossible to follow the action and dialogue simultaneously during the montage sequences), but to be self-consciously calling attention to his own penchant for such aesthetic super-saturation. And yet, despite the occasional intrusions of split-screen sequences, faux-philosophical dialogue, and off-putting stabs at relevancy (that brief discussion of Muslim women and headscarves comes out of nowhere), most of 3 unfolds at an unhurried pace, in an atmosphere that feels by turns languorous and intoxicating.
Spiked by a dark, understated sense of humor (much of which has to do with cancer), the film’s story of Hanna and Simon each undertaking separate affairs with Adam in his barebones Berlin flat, is one that’s felt mostly as figures’ lives unfolding in very specific, yet slightly dreamlike spaces. The most ravishing of these settings is an utterly surreal, futuristic public swimming pool frequented by both Simon and Adam and in whose locker room their affair begins. As Tykwer frames the pair threading the waves in dreamily symmetrical compositions, coming to the end of a lap to chat by the wall, he captures all the mystery and romance of a new relationship that isn’t necessarily communicated in the film’s less stylized sequences.
The film’s charting of Hanna’s relationship with Adam begins with similar promise. After several random encounters with her would-be lover, Hanna ends up watching him during his weekly soccer game, going out for drinks with his friends and fucking the night away in his flat. In a morbidly comic counterpoint, Tykwer intercuts footage of Hanna and Adam with graphic shots of Simon getting a testicle removed in an abruptly scheduled surgery following a visit to a doctor. Unmanned in more ways than one, Simon is unable to contact his longtime partner and faces the potentially fatal operation alone.
But Tykwer isn’t interested in sexually humiliating his characters, and out of Simon’s semi-castration comes new possibility, as discussion of his surgery becomes the ice-breaker that leads to his affair with Adam, which in turn leads to a new passion in his relationship with Hanna and, eventually, to an open and understanding arrangement between all three lovers, which unfortunately expresses itself in an overly precious bit of film-ending imagery. And yet, for all of Tykwer’s progressive understanding of human relationships (Adam, the scientist, insists on debunking notions of “biological determinism”), the characters themselves feel too thinly imagined to act out the necessary drama that the film’s occasionally complex situations require.
For a while, Tykwer gets by on the loveliness of his compositions and his talent for conjuring up unique settings and interesting exchanges. But no matter how hard he tries to make his characters distinctive, no matter how much he attempts to flesh them out through elucidating their intellectual interests (the ethics of drug companies underwriting scientific research, the collaborative art duo Gilbert and George), the drama they enact ultimately feels flat, the hermetic actions of hermetic conceptions of character. In a few tender moments (such as the locker room scene between Adam and Simon) Tykwer conjures up the feeling of necessity, but for most of the rest, it’s just eye-filling, soul-starving emptiness that no amount of intermittent assaults on the sensorium can paper over.