The word “melodrama” tends to be used as a pejorative these days, and that’s because there are few movies or TV shows that execute the specifics of the genre well. When it works, an accomplished melodrama allows the audience to fully invest in the emotional lives of its characters, even if the plot machinations are manipulative or don’t hold up under close scrutiny. It’s a genre powered by performance and atmosphere, and it requires committed work by the actors, an assured handle on tone by the director, and a script that can allow suspension of disbelief to stretch but not break. And while it’s not perfect, and though at times you can see rigging of the structure, Benoît Jacquot‘s “Three Hearts” is a satisfying melodrama about love at first sight, the cruelty of fate, and passion that never fades.
The film kicks off with a “Before Sunrise“-like prologue. Tax inspector Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) has missed the last train back to Paris from Valence, a small French town, and is stranded there. As he figures out his next move, he stops by a café where he spots Sophie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) walking by outside. Call it desire or intuition, but he tracks her down, and the pair soon fall into an easy conversation that lasts all night. They’ve clearly connected, and a plan is made to meet next Friday afternoon in Paris, by a fountain at a specific time. However, when the time comes Marc is nowhere to be seen, suffering a heart attack and arriving hours late, with Sophie sadly giving up and returning home, deeply hurt and disappointed. Would they realistically have exchanged phone numbers or texted each other? Certainly, but if you’re hung up on thinking about those kind of details, you’re missing the point.
The heartbreak finds Sophie reluctantly returning to the arms of her husband and she follows him to Minneapolis where he goes to work, but Marc isn’t yet out of the picture. Back in Paris he runs into Sylvie (Chiara Mastroianni), who has arrived at the tax office to learn that her filings have been done incorrectly, and she’ll require an audit. She can’t make heads or tails of the figures, until Marc crosses paths with her in the hallway and volunteers his assistance, and he finds himself back Valence. He soon starts falling for Sylvie but there’s one thing he doesn’t know until it’s too late — she’s Sophie’s sister. Sylvie and Marc’s romance flourishes, while conveniently, Marc manages to miss Skype calls and opportunities to meet this phantom sibling. But it’s on Sylvie and Marc’s wedding night when Sophie returns and Marc realizes the connection between them all, and it turns out the flame he has for Sophie is still burning stronger than both ever could have imagined.
Yes, the story is contrived beyond measure, and the choices the characters make (or don’t) will likely frustrate those who just want Marc or Sophie to tell Sylvie what happened between them before things get even more out of hand. But Benoit’s concerns lie much more with pain and longing deep within Marc and Sophie, how it affects them and their relationships, all while building to the eventual dramatic fireworks of the conclusion. And on this level, “Three Hearts” succeeds. Jacquot’s command of tension across the pacing of the movie is impressive, and he gets well-honed turns out of the actors in the love triangle, who bring nuance to characters who are grappling with the difficult cards they’ve been dealt. And while Gainsbourg and Poelvoorde get the showier roles, Mastroianni arguably has a harder job of playing a woman who clearly loves her husband, but discerns that on some level, for reasons she can’t understand, his reciprocation isn’t quite equal. Meanwhile, Catherine Deneuve, playing the mother of Sophie and Sylvie, is terrific, as she watches both her daughters setting themselves down a path of emotional ruin, but is unable to do anything about it.
However, Jacquot does overplay his hand sometimes. In particular, Bruno Coulais‘ score is almost laugh-out-loud overwrought, with its “Inception“-esque braaaams meant to act as gloomy sonic foreshadowing, but coming off as hokey and wholly out of place. And an intermittent, overly serious voiceover adds nothing to the movie, telling the audience what we already know about the characters and narrative. It’s a bit of hand holding the movie doesn’t need and gains little from, and counterintuitively works to highlight the artificiality of the film itself.
The baromoter with which audiences will tolerate Jacquot’s intentionally heightened drama will vary from person to person. But for those willing to invest in the lives of these characters, even if the framework around them directly and without apology guides them toward inevitable tragedy, they will experience a drama of deep, genuine feeling. “Three Hearts” sets three people on a collision course, where the intersection threads both their past and their future. “Three Hearts” may not boast the budget of a special effects movie, but that Jacquot pulls off this tale with just as much spectacle as a blockbuster is worthy of attention. [B]