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VENICE — Two bourgeois sisters from the French provinces fall in love with the same Paris tax inspector in 3 Hearts (3 Coeurs), a silky-smooth melodrama from director Benoit Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen). With a sterling, high-wattage cast that includes Chiara Mastroianni and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the siblings, Catherine Deneuve as their mother and Benoit Poelvoorde as the sisters’ object of desire, and with classy production values to match, should appeal to multiplex audiences in France, where it opens Sept. 17, on the heels of its Venice and Toronto premieres. This classically told melodrama should be able to parlay its combined star power and plush looks into niche rollouts abroad that go beyond the usual Francophile suspects.
Marc (Poelvoorde) is a Paris-based tax inspector who’s missed his last train home in the provincial town of Valence, in the picturesque southeastern Rhone-Alpes region. At a bar, he immediately falls for a stranger who walks in to buy cigarettes. She turns out to be called Sylvie (Gainsbourg). In a convincingly played sequence, the two strangers spend the rest of the night walking through the city. It’s clear their attraction is mutual and goes beyond the simply physical and they promise they’ll meet in Paris on Friday to see where their initial attraction might take them.
But Marc suffers from a heart attack on Friday and doesn’t have her number (oh the number of films that would be shorts if people just exchanged their numbers…). Unexpectedly, he returns to Valence after meeting Sophie (Mastroianni), a thirtysomething antiques dealer whose sister recently left their shared business and who needs help with a tax audit. The couple fall in love, Sophie ditches her boyfriend — in a great scene, she tells him at the cinema she’s leaving him as we hear a car crash on-screen — and introduces her new man to her matronly mom (Deneuve, Mastroianni’s actual mother).
At this point, viewers will be aware that Sophie and Sylvie are sisters and that Sylvie has conveniently decided to follow her husband to the U.S., where’s been sent for work. Skype calls between the siblings keep happening with Marc just out of sight; family pictures in the staircase of Deneuve’s plush mansion need to be avoided; planes are delayed and mobiles are never on speaker phone except in one crucial instant, all in order to allow Jacquot and regular co-screenwriter Julien Boivent to keep strategic information hidden from certain characters until its dramatically opportune to throw in a narrative bomb, thus creating an almost constant underlying tension of the when-will-they-find-out variety.
This would be grating in a more realistic context but clearly the film operates within the realm of melodrama, and as such, these kind of contrivances aren’t just acceptable, they are necessary, since plot twists are the genre’s stock in trade and it is during these intense moments, in which plot lines intersect, that emotional states and character traits come into laser-sharp focus, heightening the drama.
After Marc spies a photo of Sylvie that leaves little doubt about what her relationship is to Sophie, Jacquot inserts a beautifully observed moment in which the tax expert, in the middle of the night, Skype calls Sylvie in Minneapolis from his girlfriend’s computer. He doesn’t put the camera on so she can’t see him and he simply stares at her face on the computer screen, surrounded by the dark. The moment wordlessly explains that Marc’s feelings for the woman he’s about to marry are very different from the inexplicable but very real passion he feels for that stranger who bought a packet of cigarettes.
It helps immeasurably that Gainsbourg, as an actress, is as intense as her presence feels evanescent, always seemingly onto the next moment already, leaving everyone in her wake. Mastroianni, as the more earth-bound if also more emotionally fragile of the siblings, perfectly complements Gainsbourg and they make for believable sisters who clearly adore each other. That said, the film doesn’t quite manage to make it believable that Sylvie would neglect their clearly very intense bond as soon as she’s moved to the U.S. (since she doesn’t know yet who the man is that her sister will marry).
Belgian comedian Poelvoorde, who also falls in love with Mastroianni in Venice competition film The Price of Fame, adds another memorable dramatic character to his resume here, with the only out-of-character moment a strange, semi-comedic scene in his office in which he’s unable to communicate with two Asian businessmen. In a slight role, Deneuve is a matronly presence who dispenses food and kisses to her loved ones, though even in such a small supporting role she’s pitch-perfect; her body language in a throwaway moment after Sylvie has said she needs to go to bed early suggests both motherly worry and the (founded) suspicion that something might be wrong.
The refined production design reflects the bourgeois spheres in which these characters move, with cinematographer Julien Hirsch also opting for elegant moves and, of course, plentiful closeups that help reveal the emotional costs for all the characters of their own as well as their loved ones’ behavior. But the most effective technical contribution must be Bruno Coulais’ pared-back score, with its Inception-like drone that imparts a sense of foreboding even before the first shot appears on screen.
Production companies: Rectangle Production, Scope Pictures
Cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Chiara Mastroianni, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Catherine Deneuve, Thomas Doret, Patrick Mille, Andre Marcon
Director: Benoit Jacquot
Screenplay: Julien Boivent, Benoit Jacquot
Producers: Edouard Weil, Alice Girard
Co-producers: Christoph Friedel, Claudia Steffen, Genevieve Lemal
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Sylvain Chauvelot
Costume designer: Catherine Leterrier
Editor: Julia Gregory
Music: Bruno Coulais
Sales: Elle Driver
No rating, 108 minutes
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