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Two Sisters And One Tax Inspector Make Up '3 Hearts'

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni in <em>3 Hearts.</em>
Thierry Valletoux
Cohen Media Group
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni in 3 Hearts.

The man at the center of 3 Hearts has a unreliable ticker. That may seem a brazen contrivance, but the movie is a melodrama that relishes such narrative ploys. Shot with handheld camera, director and co-writer Benoit Jacquot's movie looks like a naturalistic drama. But the script says otherwise.

For four decades, Jacquot has switched between period pieces, such as 2012's Farewell My Queen, and contemporary efforts. The latter, which include 1995's A Single Girl, boast the verve and spontaneity of the 1960s new wave. 3 Hearts moves like one of those films, and begins with a suitably offhand setup.

A man (Benoit Poelvoorde) who won't give his name until much later misses the last train to Paris from Valence, a small city. He meets a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who's wandering the darkened streets. Their instant attraction is hard to fathom, although it may be because he's bereft — he mimes a broken heart — while she faces a crisis in her relationship with her husband.

The two arrange to meet in Paris the next Friday, without providing any contact information. (This information-age unlikelihood is explained, sort of, by the man's having lost his cellphone.) When the day arrives, the guy is sidelined by chest pains. He goes to a doctor; she goes home.

The almost-couple, eventually revealed to be Marc and Sylvie, are definitively parted when Sylvie moves to Minneapolis with her spouse, who's taken a job there. Marc, a tax inspector, returns to Valence on business and encounters Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), who's in tears because her antique shop's accounts are a mess. Her sister always did the books, Sophie explains, but she just moved to Minneapolis.

Marc and Sophie swoon for each other as quickly as Marc and Sylvie did, but with a different outcome: marriage, a young son and an extended family that revolves around Sophie's mother (Catherine Deneuve, again playing her real-life daughter's mom). Marc keeps missing the video chats with Sophie's sister, but eventually Aunt Sylvie will return for a visit. And she and Marc will find their passion hasn't cooled.

Jacquot has said he was inspired by the plots of the operas he's directed recently, and by such 1930s Hollywood melodramas as John Stahl's Back Street. The director, who's known for films about women, also wanted to tell a story about a man.

Yet Marc is the weakest side of this triangle. His personality emerges in small anecdotes that never cohere into a full characterization. It's refreshing that middle-aged Marc lacks matinee-idol looks, but his immediate appeal to both sisters remains dubious. Indeed, the intensity of their love for each other is much more palpable; the movie would be almost as interesting if were just 2 Hearts.

Aside from the lead actresses' performances, what drives the movie is energetic, elliptical storytelling and humorous asides. Like everyday life, the film abounds with unanswered questions, insignificant yet nagging: Did Marc see Sylvie once before, walking a dog? What will happen with Marc's audit of a prominent citizen?

Several funny moments turn on the fundamental theme of miscommunication. Sophie dumps a boyfriend while they watch an action flick, his protests swamped by the on-screen mayhem. Marc struggles to communicate with two Chinese businessmen who don't even understand their own names as the Frenchman pronounces them.

There's even an inside joke: Sylvie, played by a woman who grew up speaking both French and English, calls from Minnesota to lament her terrible English. In melodrama, of course, words are less important than lingering looks. The Fates set the course, and don't care what mere humans have to say.

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Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.